Math Anxiety. Yes it’s a thing.
So much so that if you Google it, you’ll see scholarly articles about it published as far back at the 1300’s.
What is it about maths that makes our confidence plummet? When I calculate a restaurant bill under pressure, I catch myself apologising for the delay with ‘my maths is terrible’ – even though it isn’t. I’ve never blamed my mythical ‘terrible English’ when I have had to pause to find the right words. So why with maths?
When I was teaching in schools I often heard students say, ‘I’m rubbish at maths’. And yet when I asked them to solve a mathematical puzzle in a non-mathematical context, those same students had no issues whatsoever.
This sounds mild for those who have experienced or have children who get distressed at the thought of maths. For some, maths is a truly traumatic experience. And Maths Anxiety not only affects a child’s educational success and self-confidence, but also affects them as an adult. After all, maths underpins so many professional and daily activities. Imagine struggling all the time.
The good news is that Math Anxiety is totally unrelated to mathematical ability.
How to avoid a child developing Math Anxiety?
Unsurprisingly, Math Anxiety is most commonly a long-term response to a prior negative experience. Teachers and parents should be mindful of projecting their personal view of maths.
Also, the lack of focus on the why and instead on the how, can make students feel insecure in their knowledge. This makes certain teaching methods exacerbate anxiety. For instance, memorising mathematical concepts without applying them to problems or, explaining the reason why it is a useful skill.
5 steps to helping students overcome Math Anxiety
#1 “Maths? Let’s do this.”
To this day my brother and I laugh about my Dad’s methods to encourage us to practice maths when we were younger – he’d try and entice us by assuring us that we wouldn’t be ‘studying’. We’d be doing ‘fun maths’. In all seriousness though, it’s a useful strategy.
Why should maths practice consist only of pages and pages of sums? Why can’t it involve the creation of an interactive PowerPoint quiz? Why shouldn’t mathematical thinking be formed through following the instructions for a Lego construction?
#2 “I get it”
When I was teaching in schools, one of the most common things I heard from students was ‘what’s the point?’. Sound familiar?
It’s hard for students to feel enthusiastic about say, algebra, when they can’t imagine how they would use it in real life. But imagine the transformation if were used to calculate how many points and rank position was needed for their favourite couple to get to the top of the leader board on Strictly Come Dancing. Or a formula for how the Premier League works.
#3 “I’m good at this”
Making goals unattainable or long-term can be gruelling. Some may think that this is an effective way of developing perseverance but in my opinion, it is actually an effective way of destroying confidence.
They key here is setting goals that you know are within reach but having a nice blend of ones that play to the student’s strengths and ones that stretch their skills.
A commonly used acronym in design is KISS – Keep It Simple Stupid. The same applies for maths instructions. Complex is not the same as hard. And simple isn’t the same as easy.
Just as you would get frustrated with a badly worded Ikea flatpack instruction sheet, a student, especially one suffering from Math Anxiety, will experience the same from unclear instructions.
One thing I find helpful are printed instructions with a tick box next to each one. It is clear, it is methodical.
Added bonus: it gives students a sense of achievement as they ticked off tasks that have been completed. A great motivational tool.
#5 Apply pressure wisely
For most students, they will at some point have to take an assessment. The pressure that this causes can have a severe impact on anxiety.
For some, this environment simply isn’t suitable. But for those who can cope with it but just require some support, it is good to gradually develop these skills.
For instance, instead of jumping into a timed exam paper, you could give them a set of questions and run a timer to show how long it took. Much less pressure than a countdown. This can be extended to encouraging the student to beat their own time.
I hope you have found this useful. As a private tutor I work with students on a one to one basis. My focus is not only on the academic side of things, but also on confidence building. I’m passionate about abolishing the experience of studying and revision being difficult.
Get in touch to have a chat about whether I can be of help to your child.
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If you have the time/interest to know more, here are some useful studies and articles: