Math Anxiety is Real;
How Teachers Can Help Calm the Nerves
by Zarina Gearty
Math anxiety is more than just being nervous about math. It is characterized by feelings of panic, tension, and helplessness aroused by doing math or even just thinking about it (Ashcraft & Kirk, 2001). Researchers think that about 20 percent of the population suffers from it. But having mathematical anxiety does not mean that a student is not good at math. Even accomplished mathematicians, such as Laurent Schwartz and Maryam Mirzakhani, reported having suffered from it. Math anxiety is not the result of doing poorly in mathematics; rather, a student may do poorly in mathematics because they feel anxious about it. Decades of research have shown that anxiety can affect many things that are important for learning, such as attention, memory, and processing speed. Memory, a key neurodevelopmental function needed for math, can be greatly hindered by math anxiety. This is because the brain devotes more energy to dealing with the stress than to processing information, thereby reducing active working memory capacity for engaging in mathematical activities.
For students with terrible math experiences in the past, just stepping into the classroom can elevate their anxiety. This year, students may feel particularly anxious about mathematics because of changes related to COVID-19 in how they are learning in socially-distanced or remote settings, or because of gaps in mathematical knowledge they may have experienced. Students’ feelings about mathematics may not always be evident to the teacher, so here are some possible indicators of math anxiety:
- A student is shut down in math class, avoids eye contact, has closed body language (especially if this type of behavior happens only in math class).
- A student often says comments such as “I’m bad at math,” “Math is terrible,” or “I hated math last year.” While not perfect indicators of math anxiety, these comments could be defense mechanisms to the stress.
- A student uses distractions or avoidance techniques to give up at the start of doing problems or tasks.
It is important for teachers to be aware of and attentive to these indicators. In addition to observing students, teachers can use math anxiety surveys to check students’ levels of anxiety. Here is an example math anxiety survey used in research.
Numerous factors such as socioeconomic status, parental upbringing and attitudes, gender stereotypes, and classroom experiences contribute to math anxiety. While teachers may not be able to control these causes, there is a lot they can do to help students manage and reduce the level of anxiety they have about mathematics. Students who suffer from math anxiety might benefit greatly from strategies that help them offload some of the demands placed on their active working memory. Some examples include the following:
- Displaying anchor charts with examples of work, previous problems, or formulas as visual cues to recall previous material.
- Drawing or writing down facts or relevant equations before working on a math problem or a math test as an external record for students to refer to when they get confused or need reassurance. This reduces anxiety as well as the amount of information students need to keep in active working memory while solving a problem.
- Giving students an opportunity to describe a problem (either orally or in writing) to a partner or the teacher to help them articulate their thinking in their own words. This may help them realize that they know more about the problem than they thought.
- Using mnemonics, such as the sentence “May I have a large container of coffee.” Counting the number of letters in each word in this sentence generates the initial digits of pi (3.1415…). Mnemonics in mathematics should be used judiciously. Different students will benefit from different types of mnemonics, and students need to be taught when and how to use them. Moreover, mnemonics should never replace understanding of ideas (e.g., “keep, change, flip” should not replace a true understanding of the meaning of division of fractions).
Below are several other strategies that teachers can implement in their classroom to help reduce the level of anxiety about math and to create a classroom climate that allows all students, including those with math anxiety, to become ready to learn.
- Start class with a diffuser. Since research has shown that high levels of math anxiety hinder brain activity (Young et al., 2012), dedicating the first five minutes of class to short, anxiety-reducing activities like these can make a lesson more meaningful to students:
- Share a joke or a fun fact. A daily routine of sharing a joke or a fact can give an anxious student something to look forward to in class. The joke or funny picture can be shared while students are walking in or logging into the virtual classroom. Daily fact calendars can be bought or found online, such as this daily fun fact Website.
- Do a warm-up/do-now question with multiple answers. These types of questions are more accessible to students who are anxious about getting the single right answer. Questions such as “Who can tell me something that we did in class yesterday?” or “What is on our agenda today?” allow multiple correct answers and make it possible for students to rely on recall or simply read the board or screen. A popular warm-up is “which one doesn’t belong” originated by Christopher Danielson. These puzzles are designed so any selection can be correct. Another question that can be modified based on grade is “Name a number that fits these criteria,” and provide a list of criteria that will allow multiple correct answers. Asking “what do you notice, what do you wonder” is another way to reduce anxiety when starting a problem.
- Before saying “Wrong,” ask “How.” Instead of focusing on the answer, focus on the method by asking how students arrived at answers before telling them if their answer is right or wrong. If incorrect, students may realize their own mistake in the process of explaining their solution. If correct, students will solidify their understanding through discourse. Of course, this works only if teachers often ask for explanations of correct solutions, so that asking for an explanation is not interpreted as another way of saying an answer is incorrect. Merely stating that an answer is wrong doesn’t allow the teacher to understand a student’s thinking or help them learn from mistakes; it often just shuts down the student from listening and understanding for the next several minutes (or even hours). Here are some online tools that can help elicit students’ explanations of methods and reasoning:
- Padlet allows students to answer questions by recording short videos of their explanations, posting pictures, or writing explanations.
- Discussion boards allow students to post pictures or written explanations of their method of solving a problem.
- Virtual whiteboards (https://whiteboard.fi/ or https://awwapp.com/) allow students to record their work and then submit screenshots for others to see.
- Pay attention to your words. Research has shown that students recall comments from their teachers as sources for their anxiety. Two common comments—“This is easy” and “How come you don’t know this?”—can unintentionally induce anxiety and be detrimental to a student’s perception of their ability and to their self-confidence. Below are some less anxiety-producing responses teachers can use.
Instead of saying …
Try saying …
“This is easy!”
Makes the student think, “I should know the answer to this question, and if I don’t, I must not be smart and I can’t do this math.”
“This problem is similar to when we did …”
“This problem will be solved using three steps.”
“Try using this problem-solving strategy…”
The student is hearing “You have already solved a similar problem, so you have the ability to solve this one” and communicates that it is okay if a student does not know the answer right away (a common belief that students hold about math solutions).
“How come you don’t know this?”
Makes the student think, “It seems like everyone knows this, and I have no idea why I don’t know this. Is it because I’m a girl? I’m a minority? I’m dumb?”
“I know math can be difficult. I can get stuck too sometimes, and when I do, this is what I try.”
“It is okay to not know right now. Try looking back at your notes, previous work, or examples.”
These communicate the idea that it is not the student’s fault for not knowing something; instead, provide strategies to find out what the student doesn’t know. Students are more likely to seek out help if they feel that the teacher will not blame them for not knowing the answer, but instead will provide helpful tips.
Projecting a positive attitude about mathematics, communicating the belief that all students can and must learn mathematics, and providing students with varied supports to learn mathematics in a caring learning environment will go a long way in helping to reduce any anxiety students may feel about mathematics.
Ashcraft, M. H., & Kirk, E. P. (2001). The relationships among working memory, math anxiety, and performance. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 130(2), 224–237. https://doi.org/10.1037/0096-34188.8.131.52
Young, C. B., Wu, S. S., & Menon, V. (2012). The neurodevelopmental basis of math anxiety. Psychological Science, 23(5), 492–501. https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797611429134
Math for All is a professional development program that brings general and special education teachers together to enhance their skills in
planning and adapting mathematics lessons to ensure that all students achieve high-quality learning outcomes in mathematics.