Mathematics Without Fear: Strategies for Supporting Students through Math Anxiety 

Math is a skill, not a trait; the more we practice and spend time with it the better we’ll get!

the word "math" spelled with wooden letter blocks sits atop a blackboard covered with equations

Everyone, regardless of age or skill level, has experienced math anxiety. Maybe it was your first timed multiplication test, glancing up at other students turning in their tests while you started to spiral, desperately trying to recall the multiples of seven.

Or maybe you had your first bout of math anxiety in high school or college, where a course or topic suddenly felt ungraspable in a subject you thought you were great at.

According to recent research, people can experience their first instances of math anxiety as early as kindergarten. It’s difficult to pinpoint exact numbers on the prevalence of math anxiety in teens and adults, but scientists have determined that about 68% of math students experience high levels of math anxiety and 17% of the population in total continues to have high levels math anxiety even when completed with their courses. I see it all the time in my friends who are, by all means, successful adults as they’re asked to calculate a 20% tip in front of a math teacher. It’s scary!

Who Does Math Anxiety Effect?

While feelings of anxiety affect every math student at some point, high levels of math anxiety tend to affect certain groups of students more frequently than others. Girls and students with learning disabilities tend to experience math anxiety more often than their peers, and the consequences of this anxiety are far-reaching.

Students from these groups experiencing math anxiety tend to perform worse on exams, avoid math related courses, can be ostracized by their peers, and subsequently do not consider STEM careers when thinking about their futures.

While some of us have instances of math anxiety, like the ones listed above, others have to deal with it everyday. It’s not a benign or phenomenon, it causes serious reactions in students and has long-lasting effects.

The causes of math anxiety mimic the consequences in the sense that they are also various and far-reaching. From the psychological processing of a math problem to societal pressures and a million little moments in-between, students are frequently faced with opportunities to question their mathematical abilities.

It is our job as parents, educators, and anyone who cares for a student to both understand the causes of math anxiety and explore ways to support students through it.

Understanding Math Anxiety

Math anxiety is characterized by worry, fear, and apprehension surrounding both the physical math classroom and math itself. Students with math anxiety start to feel panicked when asked to perform calculations or start a problem. In order to alleviate these feelings, they try to avoid math whenever possible. This could look like:

  • not seeking additional help when confused
  • having missing assignments in their course
  • skipping their classes
  • quitting their math courses altogether

Other subjects do not seem to have the same overreaching affect on students. What is it about math specifically that triggers these emotions?

Why Is Math So Scary?

For starters, math relies a lot on working-memory, which is the retention of a small amount of information in a readily accessible form. For a lot of younger students, their working memory is not fully developed. Certain students become distracted during the process of problem solving and find it difficult to jump-back in.

Society also attaches an identity to mathematical ability that it does not do to other subjects; people are either left-brained or right-brained, they love it or they hate it, they get it or they don’t. An instance of not understanding a math problem is no longer just that, it is instead evidence that they are “not a math person”.

The worst perpetrators of this idea are often the adults in the student’s life. When parents have negative attitudes towards math or use language supporting math ability as an identity, students then take on the same mindset.

As a community, we have to change the language we use surrounding math. The myth that some people will never be “math people” is often perpetuated by parents, classmates, and even teachers.

Students also have preconceived notions about what kind of person is good at math. The mathematicians discussed in the classroom tend to be dead European figures, and oddly enough it can be hard for a nine-year-old girl to identify with a painting or a statue of an old Grecian man!

If students can’t see themselves in the role that they’re being asked to perform, it’s going to be harder for them to feel confident in their abilities.

The Math Classroom 

The math classroom is not typically set-up in a way that allows students to explore and make mistakes. During their lessons they see examples, then must perform the skill correctly on the first attempt during their homework. Later in the unit, there is often a test in which they have to further prove that they have the skill. 

Math is a naturally explorative and independent subject. Teachers can create a safe and supportive environment where students feel comfortable to ask questions, make mistakes, and learn from them. This can include incorporating hands-on activities, group discussions, and problem-solving tasks that allow students to actively engage with math concepts. 

While teachers do their best to incorporate independent discovery and self-paced learning, classes often have to move on to a different topic to keep up with the curriculum, even if a few students still do not understand the material. Often, students who have fallen behind often need additional support outside of the classroom as well. 

Strategies to Overcome Math Anxiety 

As a community, we have to change the language we use surrounding math. The myth that some people will never be “math people” is often perpetuated by parents, classmates, and even teachers. At home, try to adjust your language. If a student hears, “Math never clicked for me, I’m just not a math person”, they’re going to expect the same outcome for themself.

Developing a Growth Mindset

Instead of labeling students as “good at math” or “bad at math”, we should focus on their progress and growth in the subject. Encouraging a growth mindset, where students believe that their abilities can improve with effort and practice, can help them develop a positive attitude towards math. 

It’s OK to Make Mistakes

Students also grapple with a fear of not immediately grasping a concept and making mistakes. To address this, it is important to create an environment where students feel free to make mistakes and explore questions that arise.

Kids often mirror our reactions to events, just like when a toddler trips at the playground and looks to us for cues before crying out. We need to respond to math mistakes with a sense of lightness and openness, so that students learn to react in the same way. 

Practice Makes Progress

Math is a skill, not a trait; the more we practice and spend time with it the better we’ll get! It’s hard to see this at first, especially when a student is already feeling discouraged. Encouragement goes a long way. It also helps to show students how they’ve grown when they can’t see it themselves. If a student has recently grasped a concept, have them reflect on their accomplishment. 

Rethinking Homework

We also have to change our mindset surrounding homework. When a student brings home a 20-question worksheet, it is incredibly tempting to try to push them through it as quickly as possible.

An effective approach to homework is to first assess what they already know and build on that foundation. When a student makes a mistake, it’s also helpful to give them the space to try to identify and correct it themselves. 

Unfortunately these approaches take a lot more time, which is a rare resource to a parent. Employing an experienced tutor allows students to approach their coursework in a helpful way, and allows families to spend quality time together instead of spending it squabbling over math homework. 

Tutoring and Further Exploration 

I (and scientists too!) am passionate about tutoring as one of the best tools for addressing math anxiety. Tutoring attacks it at all angles (pun-intended); students are able to make mistakes and ask questions in a low-stress environment, which increases both confidence and the foundational skills required for success.

During a tutoring session, students experience individualized help, a safe place to explore and play around with math, an adult to encourage a growth mindset, and the development of the skills they need to not only catch-up, but thrive in future units.

The best part about tutoring? It’s proven to be effective at all levels, even for high school students who have fallen far behind. Tutoring is a powerful tool, so powerful that many schools have turned to tutoring programs to address learning loss do to COVID 19. 

I encourage you to also check out a recent podcast episode posted by one of my favorite math educators who currently serves as the Chief Academic Officer at Desmos, Dan Meyer. In the episode, he and his guest discuss how we can further address math anxiety inside and the classroom.

It’s well worth the listen, especially if you are interested in the science behind what is actually going on in a students brain when they experience math anxiety. 

Overcoming math anxiety may seem like a daunting task, but by understanding the causes of math anxiety, and exploring strategies to work through it, we can help students build academic confidence and open up the magical world of math!

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