When students think about doing math questions, many break out in a sweat and get knots in their stomach. The looming notion of failure takes hold while sneaking a peek at the host of math questions on the worksheet in front of them. Make no mistake about it: math anxiety exists.
People with a fixed mindset about math will often say things like:
- I’m just not good at math.
- Math is just too hard to do.
- I don’t see how this is going to be needed in the real world.
- Math is just not for me.
Whether or not your students are feeling the math love, your role as a teacher is to eliminate the fixed mindset that produces the anxiety students have about being successful at math.
What Is Math Anxiety?
Regardless of age, math anxiety negatively impacts people’s belief in themselves to accomplish math exercises. We all get nervous about tackling new things sometimes, but math anxiety is more than just a feeling of being nervous.
- One study stated that approximately two-thirds of American adults are influenced by math anxiety.
- Another study done by the Journal of Psychoeducational Assessment reported that almost 17% of Americans suffer from extreme levels of math anxiety.
- Cleveland State University psychologist Mark H. Ashcraft defines math anxiety as a state of fear, nervousness or worry that hinders successful math performance.
- Even as far back as 1972, the Journal of Counseling Psychology was discussing math anxiety. Counseling psychologist Richard Suinn and educational psychologist Frank Richardson add that math anxiety hinders not only math performance in the classroom, but it also affects the successful use of math in real-life applications.
To the people who exhibit math anxiety, accomplishing successful math performance is something they believe they cannot do. However, this is often not the case. For example, a student may have the knowledge to solve a polynomial equation, but anxiety about completing the equation may make the student panic when trying to solve the equation. The student ends up not being able to solve the problem even though the student has the knowledge to solve the problem with ease.
Now, let’s look at what math anxiety looks like and where it originates.
Math Anxiety Symptoms and Signs
To eliminate math anxiety, you must first know how to identify the signs of math anxiety. An awareness of the signs of math anxiety will allow you to work with your students to help them eliminate this condition.
Feeling of permanency
People tend to think that a lack of success in math is supposed to be the norm for a student who is weak in math. And when the student accepts this faulty assumption, the student loses all hope and no longer tries to improve his or her math skills because the student thinks the circumstances will never change.
You’ve most likely heard the statements below from a student who has math anxiety:
- “I’ll never be good at math.”
- “I can’t do math.”
- “I hate math.”
Unfortunately, when students engage in this type of negative self-talk, it causes them to feel like there’s no help for their problem and no hope of overcoming it. Try posting some motivational signs around your classroom like the one below, reminding students that when they hear themselves engaging in negative self-talk, STOP, and reframe the issue.
Credit: Fieldcrest Elementary School
According to an article in Psychology Research and Behaviour Management, physiological signs students often exhibit that accompany math anxiety are clammy hands, accelerated heart rate, lightheadedness, upset stomach and nervousness.
Intense emotional reactions
Not only does math anxiety affect us physiologically, but it also has a tendency to impact us emotionally.
A student reacting with anger, panic or tears in math class could be experiencing math anxiety.
If these emotions are being exhibited due to math anxiety, they originate from the misguided belief that one must be completely accurate and quick when answering math questions.
Students who have no confidence in themselves to answer math questions correctly will perform poorly on math tests.
The more they perform poorly on tests, the more students start accepting this lack of achievement in math as an irreversible reality, a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The reason we can multi-task is due to our ability to access our working memory. Dr. Judy Willis, author of Learning to Love Math, states that anxiety literally impairs a student’s ability to access working memory needed to solve a math problem.
For example, suppose you read a math question to the class. A student with math anxiety would choose to waste their working memory on feeling anxious instead of using it to help remind them of the steps needed to solve the question.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) was used in a research project in Psychological Science to explore the impact on the brain in children with low or high math anxiety.
As students completed simple and complex addition and subtraction problems, the MRI utilized passive fixation leads to determine how the child responded to each question.
Compared to those with low math anxiety, the findings revealed that students who exhibited higher levels of math anxiety tended to have more brain activity in the part where negative emotions and feelings of fear are processed (the amygdala).
The students with higher levels of math anxiety also showed little activity in the areas of the brain responsible for mathematical processing and processing working memory.
Have you ever wondered why some students tend to be absent on quiz and test days?
Some students have learned to take the easy road when instead of addressing their anxieties about math. These are the ones you will see in remedial courses, or they will avoid math altogether, which Ashcraft states is one of the most lasting and negative effects of math anxiety.
Avoidance of math in the secondary and postsecondary environment will manifest in class schedules where students choose to take little or no math electives. Even in the required courses, you can expect these students to receive lower grades than those who do not have math anxiety. If you ever have a discussion with them about math, you will find they have a very negative self-perception about succeeding in math.
Major Causes of Math Anxiety
The origins of a student’s math anxiety can’t be summed up as one issue. Even in early childhood, there are a diversity of factors at work that shape children’s perception of math.
Consider your own issues with math anxiety. Are you able to determine what triggered your anxiety and when it started?
Maybe you didn’t learn the steps right because your teacher didn’t teach it effectively. Maybe people laughed when you got a math problem wrong that you volunteered to answer in class. Maybe you saw signs of struggling with math as early as kindergarten or as late as college. Maybe your parents had negative stereotypes about math based on their own experiences, and their stereotypes were instilled in you.
Fear of being wrong
Embarrassing situations can be very traumatic for young children. So, if you or your students criticize or mock people who answer incorrectly, it may trigger or increase existing math anxiety in them.
Studies done by Stanford University math professor and author Jo Boaler tells us that once anxiety starts, it’s just a matter of time before more triggers occur that make the anxiety worse as the child ages.
Parents’ negative predispositions
As stated earlier, parents’ negative stereotypes about math based on their own experiences can be instilled in their children.
The article addressing the impact of parents’ feelings about math points out that it can be as simple as a parent mentioning he or she is not good at math to trigger the assumption that the child doesn’t have to be good at math either—since it runs in the family. Also, it sends the message that one can be successful in life without trying to be successful at doing math.
As role models and authority figures, teachers can have the same influence on children as parents can, which mean children can also adopt math anxiety from their teachers.
Students need teachers that desire to help them understand mathematical concepts they are having problems comprehending—even if it means teachers need to revise their teaching strategies to help students understand the unfamiliar concepts.
Teaching students that there is only one way to solve a math problem eventually leads to apathy for solving math problems. Not encouraging students to explore alternative strategies to solve a math problem discourages students who may not agree with the teacher’s preferred method of solving the problem.
As Daniel Ansari, principal investigator for the Numerical Cognition Laboratory at the University of Western Ontario points out, many teachers shun teaching high school math and prefer elementary math because there’s less possibility of math problems having multiple solutions like there are in more complex math subjects found in the upper grades. However, to remove math anxiety about there being only one way to solve a math problem—regardless of what grade—teachers need to encourage students to embrace the possibility of using other strategies that will lead to solving the problem correctly.
Inability, or refusal, to complete assignments
Teachers limit their students understanding of math when they promote memorization. One Palm Beach County math teacher points out that memorization and unpreparedness often work together to foster math anxiety in students.
It’s one thing for students to feel like they can’t do their math assignments, but when teachers promote memorization, it reinforces the fixed mindset about math and often affects other areas of the student’s life.
The pressure of timed tests (and poor test grades)
There’s nothing more nerve-wracking than the timed math test. These tests are supposed to help with increasing math fluency, but they foster a feeling of being overwhelmed because timed tests make students feel pressured to solve problems within a time limit.
12 Tips for Overcoming Math Anxiety
Try one or more of the proven methods below to help your student (or child if you are the parent) overcome math anxiety.
Make math fun
There’s a good reason why more teachers are embracing the art of gameful learning in the math classroom. For starters, gameful learning makes learning the skills a fun experience, which promotes more class participation. Also, gameful learning fosters fluency when used in the math classroom.
Making math fun allows students to keep trying until they are successful. According to an article on using games in the classroom, gameful learning teaches students that failure to solve a problem the first time is not a testament to eternal failure. It is only a reminder to keep working until the solution is found.
Explore this article to see some examples of how to use game-based learning in the classroom.
2. Positive reinforcement
A moment of encouraging words goes a long way for a child.
The Journal of Emerging Investigators examined the impact of both positive and negative reinforcement had on 6th-grade math performance.
Students were given positive, negative or neutral reinforcement prior to being required to use mental math to perform fractions. While doing these fractions, the students also had to hold a heart rate monitor.
The findings revealed that both positive and negative reinforcement influences better performance on math problems. When calculating the fractions, the 6th graders that received positive reinforcement had a lower heart rate than those in the other experimental groups.
Therefore, it is recommended teachers and parents use a reward system to assist in improving academic success in math.
When students are having a problem solving a math question, teachers can reassure the student that it’s ok for them to not have the solution yet and offer to help them go over the steps. Also, you can elect to have one of the student’s peers work with them to help figure out the solution.
For parents, instead of giving a child a negative consequence for not completing their math homework (like no snack or no electronic devices), offer them a reward for completing it (Say, “When you finish your math homework, you can __________.”)
Another study on math anxiety that examined how often parents helped their children with their homework concluded that the children’s success was dependent upon their parents’ reaction to math. So, if the parents expressed anxiety toward math, the children were more likely to experience little success in math throughout the school year—especially if these anxious parents helped them with their homework.
The parents aren’t intentionally trying to hinder their children’s success in math. However, they need to be aware of their own issues towards math so that their attempts to help their children won’t be counterproductive.
3. Play math games to find the fun in math
Free online math games like mathplayground, can help you enjoy and learn math while improving your skills and understanding.
Stewarts Creek Elementary School in Smyrna, Tennessee adopted Prodigy math game and the results were very positive. Teachers saw an increase in overall engagement, more student participation from lower-performing students and increased motivation to do more challenging math from higher-performing students.
- Use mixed-ability grouping
Mixed-ability grouping is the grouping together of students with a diversity of academic abilities.
One survey of teachers who adopted mixed-ability grouping revealed that teachers seem to agree that the technique proves to be highly effective.
The traditional model of grouping students with similar abilities (i.e., low with low and high with high) tends to leave the group with those of lower abilities at a disadvantage.
Those in the lower groups are already having difficulties with math and isolating them from those experiencing more success in math only widens the gulf between them and increases limitations on the success of the lower groups.
However, when teachers utilize mixed-ability grouping in the math classroom, even the higher ability students improve in their abilities to explore alternative approaches to solving equations. Students become more aware of their progress and more aware of areas where they needed to improve.
5. Get a tutor
Credit: Jake Mohan
Tutoring one-on-one is a great strategy to eliminate math anxiety. One study involving 46 nine-year-olds monitored their progress over an eight-week period of tutoring for a minimum of 40 minutes each week. An MRI scan was done prior to and after each tutoring session.
An eight-week study involved 46 seven- to nine-year-olds who participated in 40 to 50-minutes of math tutoring per week. Before and after their sessions, students got an MRI scan. Those who received the most tutoring during the eight-week period experienced less activity in the amygdala and a higher decrease in math anxiety.
6. Anxiety reappraisal
The people who influence children the most are their parents and their teachers.
Children will grow up with apathy towards math if their parents and/or teachers frequently exhibit a negative perception of doing math.
So instead of allowing the child to express their anxious feelings directly, have them reframe it by saying they are excited about getting ready to do math.
It may sound like nonsense but it helps tremendously.
A study published by Harvard Business School professor Alison Brooks conducted a karaoke test, a speech and a math problem to explore the correlation between anxiety reappraisal and performance. The participants were told to say one of three things prior to their turn to sing: The participants were told to say one of three things prior to their turn to sing:
- “I am anxious.”
- “I am excited.”
The participants who were told to say, “I am excited,” sang better, spoke longer and were more convincing during their speech and performed better on the math problem than those participants that were told to say they were anxious or to say nothing.
The monitoring of the participants’ heart rates prior to and after their events revealed that those who had what Brooks refers to as an “opportunity mindset” instead of a “threat mindset” had no change in heart rate or anxiety levels.
Although the anxiety levels and heart rates did not change, the inclusion of the reappraisal phrase “I am excited,” still allowed for better performance outcomes for the participants who used it.
7. Read math books
A 2018 study done by Marjorie Schaeffer and her research team explored whether parents’ use of a math app called Bedtime Math would positively impact 1st-grade children’s math achievement.
After parents would read a math-related story, they would have their children answer questions about the story’s content in the form of word problems or simple addition.
Schaeffer and her colleagues discovered that “interventions involving parents and children together can have powerful lasting effects” when it comes to improving a child’s academic achievements in math.
8. Take time to answer questions
Most students feel pressured to answer questions immediately, which is why many students experience math anxiety.
According to research done at Arizona State University, math teachers allow between 0.7 to 1.4 seconds for students to answer a question.
However, since it takes approximately 10 seconds for students to process a question and come up with an answer, allowing no more than 1.4 seconds to answer robs them of an opportunity to use their critical thinking skills to generate the correct response. These missed opportunities create an environment that makes learning math uneasy for students.
A five-year study in 1972 done by science academic researcher Mary Budd Rowe revealed that a minimum of three seconds wait time significantly improves students’ ability to formulate a correct response to an academic question.
Benefits for teachers:
- More quality questions that are varied and flexible
- More follow-up questions encouraging higher-level thinking
Benefits for students:
- Less “I don’t know” answers
- Increased efforts to do long and correct answers
- Increase satisfactory test score performance
- More student participation in class discussions to answer math questions
9. Encourage understanding not memorization
Jo Boaler’s experience with impaired memory led her to pursue a career in mathematics. In her research on memorization for The Hechinger Report, she pointed out how society tends to praise people who can memorize things quickly more than those who are slower and more creative thinkers. She also remarked that the flaw in this preference for memorizers overlooks the need for deep and creative thinkers influence on our technological culture.
According to the 2012 PISA research data on 13 million students, it was revealed that the ones who used memorization techniques had the lowest math achievement
Although memorization has its place in learning, using it as the only method to perform mathematical questions stunts academic growth. As Boaler puts it, allowing memorization to dominate students’ way of thinking produces people who are “procedurally competent” but not analytically competent.
The key to students grasping mental math skills and number sense early on in childhood development lies in creating environments where understanding is encouraged and favoured more than memorization.
10. Get stuck and then unstuck
Math anxiety and other negative emotions surface when people feel stuck on a problem.
Literacy interventionist and Former New Jersey 4th grade teacher Kate Mills used to help her students get unstuck by giving them a math question she knew would cause them to feel stuck.
Prior to answering the question, she would remind the students to work through the problem and think about how they plan on becoming unstuck while solving the problem.
While the students are working the problem out, Mills uses guided questions to assist them in this process:
- What’s your first step?
- What are you doing now?
- What do you want to do next?
- How did you work your way out and get unstuck?
Try making visuals containing a list of methods to use to get unstuck so students are reminded of the methods they already use and so students can get acquainted with newer methods they have yet to use.
The visual acts as a motivational tool to remind students that there’s no such thing as forever failure, and there’s always something that can be done to help with answering a question.
11. Express yourself
This strategy originated in a twitter discussion about math. Prior to a test, allow students to have 5 minutes to talk about the test (with no pencils). Students performed better on the test because the discussion about the test eased their anxiety.
Another expression technique is journalism. Although this may seem like a surprise to some, psychological researchers like Sian Beilock and Gerardo Ramirez revealed in a study that students performed better on their exams when asked to write about their testing worries prior to the exam.
- Practice mindfulness
In 2013, Tad T. Brunyé conducted cognitive psychological research on how breathing practices could impact math anxiety. His findings revealed that students performed better on timed tests when they did breathing exercises that produced feelings of serenity.
Brunyé’s research suggests that mindfulness techniques such as breathing exercise can help students overcome barriers like math anxiety that hinder access to working memory.
Math anxiety self-test
If you suspect you may have math anxiety, try this self-test to get a general idea of where you stand when it comes to math anxiety. If you do not have math anxiety, this self-test will give you some insight into how some of your students feel at the start of the school year.
Your teaching and assessment methods should take into consideration how your students score on this self-test.
Here’s a series of 10 questions adapted from Ellen Freedman’s math anxiety questionnaire:
1 = Disagree, 5 = Agree
- Do you fear math tests more than any other kind? 1 2 3 4 5
- Cringe when you go to math class? 1 2 3 4 5
- Understand math now, but worry that it will get harder later? 1 2 3 4 5
- Know how to study for math tests? 1 2 3 4 5
- Feel uneasy about doing math problems on the board? 1 2 3 4 5
- Understand math in class, but have problems remembering the steps when you get home? 1 2 3 4 5
- Do you often zone out in math class? 1 2 3 4 5
- Worried you won’t be able to keep up with the rest of the class? 1 2 3 4 5
- Afraid to ask questions in math class? 1 2 3 4 5
- Do you fear being called on in math class? 1 2 3 4 5
How high is your math anxiety?
Add up the numbers and check your students’ scores.
- 10-19 — You probably love math
- 20-29 — You may have math anxiety
- 30-39 — Math clearly makes you uneasy
- 40-50 — You have math anxiety
Verdict on Math Anxiety: “Mathematics education is in crisis.”
Jo Boaler stated this verdict in an Education Week article published on July 3, 2012. In her insightful discourse, she stated:
A third of all schoolchildren end up in remedial math courses, and the level of interest in the subject is at an all-time low. This is a result, in part, of schools in the United States heading down a fast-moving track in which the purpose of math has been reduced to the ranking of children and their schools.
Math is viewed as a performance indicator for students. They see it as a measure of academic performance and not something to appreciate.
Children see math as a ranking tool as soon as they start in the elementary grades with taking timed tests despite all the research that suggests timed tests helps promote math anxiety.
Because math anxiety affects people throughout life—even to adulthood—schools will see a consistent pattern of decreased academic performance.
However, this downward spiral can be remedied when adopting strategies to overcome math anxiety. Therefore, it’s critical we start embracing these strategies to end the cycle of math underachievement and begin the cycle of a generation of students who love math.
As Beilock stated in her research, “No one walks around bragging that they can’t read, but it’s perfectly socially acceptable to say you don’t like math.”
Methods to overcome math anxiety can stop this self-fulfilling prophecy.