Math Anxiety - What it is and How to help

May 28, 2020

If I had a nickel for every student who told me they weren’t good at math…. Wait that sounds like a word problem and is probably making at least some of you anxious. Math Anxiety is real and by all the current jokes and memes on FaceBook, it is alive, well and growing. While humor is a good way to diffuse tension, all of the current discussion of the difficulties of teaching our children math just feed the idea that math is hard. 


What is Math Anxiety?

Math anxiety is an actual physical response to the prospect of having to complete a math task. For some students it causes their heart rate to increase. They may become sweaty or shaky. For all students, math anxiety consumes some of their working memory making it harder for them to do math. It is kind of a chicken or egg proposition. Do students have math anxiety because they aren’t good a math or are students not good at math because they have anxiety. Regardless of which came first. Math anxiety is real and students must overcome it to reach their full potential. 


Why do students develop math anxiety?

Some people blame timed tests for math anxiety. Students feel pressure to complete their work in the allotted amount of time which negatively impacts their confidence and often their performance. Another potential reason is that their teacher feels negatively about math. Studies have actually shown that students of teachers with math anxiety had lower academic achievement than those whose teachers modeled a more positive attitude about math. A third potential reason for students developing negative attitudes toward math is the concept that math does not relate to real life. At least once a week, a student asks me “When am I ever going to use this in real life?” While I agree, unless you are going to be an architect, rocket scientist or engineer, you may not find daily uses for trigonometry, everyone uses simple arithmetic and yes ALGEBRA. You calculate how much you are going to spend at the store. You compare prices, distances, car mileage and most importantly, pay checks. 


How can you reduce math anxiety? 

First you need to recognize that no one likes to do things they think they aren’t good at. I am not a fan of golf. I am awful at golf. In order to help students reduce their math anxiety, you need to increase their success rate and their perception of their abilities. So exactly how do you do that?

Most importantly, stop thinking of mistakes and bad things. Mistakes or errors are opportunities to learn. I frequently tell my students “if you don’t make any mistakes today, I didn’t get a chance to do my job and you didn’t learn anything.” Many students never look at a problem they have missed again. That is a huge loss. Studying that problem, finding where they got off track and figuring out how to get to the correct answer builds not only knowledge but confidence. The student then knows, it’s okay if I don’t get it right the first time. They can be confident that they have the skills to figure it out. 

Next you need to recognize that Rome wasn’t built in a day. Applaud each win no matter how small. I am a BIG believer in effort over outcome. I believe if you put the effort in, you will ultimately get the outcome you desire. Does your student struggle with math? If so, give them lots of praise for doing their homework. Remember, nobody likes to do hard things. If you praise them for trying, even if their results weren’t all correct, they learn that educational grit is a good thing.

Maybe they need a little extra help. If a student really has a strong case of math anxiety, they may need a tutor for a little while. Remind them that this is ok. It is no different than going to a pitching coach so you can play on the varsity baseball team or taking additional dance classes so that you can get a bigger role in the school play. Just make sure the tutor is positive and supportive in their approach. 

Finally, incorporate math into your everyday life. Fear and anxiety stem from not knowing. Have you student help you calculate how many eggs you need to bake 4 dozen cookies. Talk to then about what size pizza to order to feed the family. Have them figure out how long it will take to drive to the beach given the distance and speed limit. Take that a step further and have them calculate how much gas you will need. Play card games and board games. Both of these increase number sense. The more students see the need for math and how much math they already use in their lives, the less anxious they will be. 


For more information about math anxiety, you may want to read the following articles

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