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How to Overcome Math Anxiety

The ability to absorb concepts easily and answer questions correctly is what all students hope to achieve. Unfortunately for some, this might not happen as naturally as they would wish. Which can spiral into emotional distress, further hindering their thought process. Perry, A.B, 2004, (as mentioned in Funer, 2016) has reported in a 2004 study that 85% of students in a beginner-level college course have experienced anxiety when tasked with math problems. In addition, 75% of students in the US begin to avoid taking math courses when they have completed the minimum requirements for graduation (Scarpello, 2007). 

What is Math Anxiety? 

To put it simply, it is when a student begins to doubt their math skills. With the constant pressure to be perfect, students begin to develop what is called “math anxiety.” Math anxiety can be defined as a “feeling of tension and anxiety that interferes with the manipulation of numbers and solving of mathematical problems in ordinary situations and academic situations” (Hopko et al., 2003, p. 648, as mentioned in (Finlayson, 2014). This fear of performing mathematics ranges from tolerable to extremely severe. Nonetheless, all cases report that individuals would try to avoid performing tasks that require math skills. 

Several other causes contribute to the development of such anxiety other than the pressure to not make mistakes. Although it requires more thorough research, they all lead to avoidance of completing math questions, a negative attitude towards mathematics, and significantly less self-efficacy. The causes of math anxiety include everything found in a traditional math class, starting with the delivery of concepts to the way they are tested on their skills in a timed manner (Finlayson, 2014). 

What Causes Math Anxiety?

The general presentation method for traditional math courses insinuates a fixed knowledge and that there is no other way to solve math problems based on the curriculum used. However, the problem stands when we remember that students are different in terms of their skills, learning style, and pace of learning. Thus, when teachers teach math in only one method and deny others, it can lead to issues for those who need more time to understand. Furthermore, when students are tasked to work on tasks individually, it can hinder their communication of ideas and building concepts (Finlayson, 2014). Putting them under the pressure of finding the right answer on their own based on memorization of formulas and skills can feel counterproductive when it comes to education. 

Now, let’s talk about taking tests; the traditional idea is that a student will show their knowledge and grasp of a concept during the test. Unfortunately for some, the lead-up to a test and taking a test is when much of their anxiety builds up. As mentioned, the timed manner of working on tests makes it difficult for those who need more time due to the different learning styles and pace of learning (Finlayson, 2014). Other studies also reason that some causes of math anxiety might be parental and/or teacher influenced, past math class experience, or dwelling on past performance  (Scarpello, 2007).  

What to Look For?

Students’ anxiety becomes more extreme during high school, but it can begin to develop from primary school (Scarpello, 2007) when math becomes more complex, including fractions, decimal points, and overall requires more skills and working memory. 

According to one report (Aschcraft, 2002), when an identical math problem was presented to a body of students of varying emotional states, highly anxious students made more mistakes than others and had trouble making sense of the answers.

As the math questions progressively became more complex (e.g., multiplication problems, two-column addition), more errors were made, and more notable symptoms were shown. While both types of students answered questions at the same quick pace, highly math-anxious students made additional mistakes. They reasoned that by finishing questions quickly, these students would be able to reduce the time being involved in answering the questions.

The errors made by highly math-anxious students are due to their lack of confidence in their abilities disrupting their working memory processes. Working memory is where information can be held temporarily as other cognitive functions are being used simultaneously. An example of this in solving addition with carrying problems, a student would keep a number in their mind as they are counting up to it. You can compare a working memory to a desk; it becomes difficult to work on because it has many things piled up on it. 

So when they are anxious about solving math problems, the working memory is disrupted because it becomes difficult to pay attention to the actual questions as to their anxiety, and intrusive thoughts destabilizers their concentration.

Math Anxiety in Learning Support (LS) Students

Math disability (MD) or dyscalculia is a persistent struggle in learning and understanding math concepts. It can begin to show in the early stages of school life and will progressively become worse as they grow. Not to be confused with math anxiety, where it is only associated with self-doubt. 

Those with math anxiety and dyscalculia would need both academic and mental support because eventually, students with either one will develop anxiety related to math. It has been estimated that 5-8% of students have experienced some difficulty in learning simple mathematical and numerical concepts (Wu et al., 2013).  

Given the aforementioned information about math performance and anxiety, it would make sense that the behaviors exhibited in LS students are somewhat different from those who don’t have learning difficulties. For instance, students with MD were shown to have significantly more attentional problems and psychosocial difficulties (Wu et al., 2013). Moreover, internalized behaviors, such as depression, anxiety, lowered self-esteem, and isolation, were more prominent in MD students. However, there is still more research that needs to be completed before we can draw any solid conclusions. 

How to Prevent and Reduce Math Anxiety?

Parents and teachers can influence a student’s attitude and level of fear towards math. They are the best people to provide academic and emotional support to students with anxiety towards maths and/or math tests.

Parents can see how much studying and in what style their children study at home; this means they can report to their math teachers any difficulties they may be facing and consider that. In addition, parents understand their children better and thus provide them with external resources that they think are suitable for them. This includes YouTube videos, online math websites, and even math games that help in visualizing abstract and numerical concepts. Parents can also hire a private tutor to help if they believe they’re unable to help them.

On the other hand, teachers have the advantage of overseeing the student’s assignments and tests. Suppose the student’s work shows no development in math achievement or is simply a blank sheet of paper. In that case, this could be an indication that the student is experiencing some difficulty or anxiety. 

From that point onwards (or preferably, before students begin to feel anxious), teachers can adopt different teaching methods that reduce or prevent the anxiety. Finlayson (2014) suggests one teaching method is the Constructivist teaching method, which states, “learning occurs as learners are actively involved in a process of meaning and knowledge construction as opposed to passively receiving information.” From the term “constructive,” this teaching method aims to build on the student’s preceding knowledge. 

When adopting this method, the teacher encourages their students to ask questions and to take risks to become critical and independent learners. It allows students to work in groups and exchange ideas because, according to the constructivist method, knowledge is flexible and dynamic. In other words, knowledge and the way students learn can change over time due to experience. Engagement with the teacher and other peers is necessary for this method because it claims that learning is an active process, rather than passively absorbing knowledge (Finlayson, 2014).

Interviews from RAS Math Teachers

We were curious to take a glimpse into what goes on in math classrooms at RAS. So we decided to ask a few of our math teachers. When asked whether they had students who felt anxious at doing math, most of them answered yes for various reasons. The reasons included students comparing their learning pace to their peers, lacking confidence in performing math, or suddenly having a blank mind when tasked with a math question. 

We also asked what kind of strategies they use in class; one answered that they teach their students as if they were students themselves. Another teacher responded that they advise “taking yourself out of the environment by walking away from the problem and facing it later” can help clear the mind. One teacher also suggested that it’s helpful to remove the “barrier” that hinders students when doing math. This is done by closely monitoring their thought process, considering their learning style and pace, providing and receiving feedback, and encouraging them. After implementing said strategies, they reported that there was a noticeable change in their students’ attitudes.

Conclusion

There is no shame when performing math poorly; it can be difficult for you or your child, especially when it is an anxiety-inducing task. There could be many attributes to the cause of math anxiety, such as a terrible experience or social influence, or a combination of other factors. Nonetheless, it’s important to highlight that students who experience math anxiety may not necessarily be bad at doing math. That’s why it’s encouraged to reduce their anxiety from an early stage before it builds as math becomes more complex. Taking the right approach by giving students more time, conceptualizing abstract concepts using playful methods, and portraying a positive attitude towards math are just a few ways to point students in the right direction. 

Researched and written by Jumana Raggam 

References

Ashcraft, M. H. (2002). Math anxiety: Personal, educational, and cognitive consequences. Current directions in psychological science, 11(5), 181-185.

Furner, J. M. (2016). Every student can be an Einstein: Addressing math anxiety in today’s classrooms. Transformations, 2(2), 22-45.

Rubinsten, O. (2017, March 27). Why do people get so anxious about math? – Orly Rubinsten. YouTube. Retrieved November 19, 2021, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7snnRaC4t5c 

Scarpello, g. (2007). Helping students get past math anxiety. Techniques: Connecting Education and Careers, 82(6), 34-35.

Wu, S. S., Willcutt, E. G., Escovar, E., & Menon, V. (2013). Mathematics achievement and anxiety and their relation to internalizing and externalizing behaviors. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 47(6), 503-514. https://doi.org/10.1177/0022219412473154

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