Are you ready and excited to unlock the full mathematical potential of your students? But they seem to dread math class and struggle to engage with the subject? They may be experiencing mathematics anxiety, a real condition that can hold them back from achieving their best. But don’t let this be a barrier to their success.
In this article, we dive into the world of math(s) anxiety, understand its impact and most importantly, give you practical tips and strategies to help your students overcome it. Together, we can make math(s) an enjoyable subject to learn. Let’s empower our students to love math(s)!
According to the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute (AMSI), mathematics anxiety can be defined as
“A phenomenon where individuals suffer from the irrational fear of mathematics to the extent that they become paralysed in their thinking and are unable to learn or be comfortable with mathematics.”
This anxiety can occur during a mathematics class or in anticipation of it, and it impedes the working memory that’s so vital for mathematical thinking. Under stress, students have difficulty ‘thinking straight’ and solving even basic problems.
Mathematics anxiety presents in different ways, but most teachers and parents will recognize outward symptoms in students who:
Ultimately this shows in a student’s results too. Without intervention, mathematics anxiety almost always negatively impacts achievement in mathematics.
Mathematics anxiety is alarmingly common. A 2014 report from AMSI estimated that up to 80% of US college students had experienced mathematics anxiety at some point during their education and that this number is on the rise.
Sometimes it looks more subtle than the cases listed above. It might show in a student’s attitude. For example, “I’m not a math(s) person” or, “Math(s) is just about rote learning.”
For students, mathematics anxiety becomes a toxic cycle of underachievement. Students who feel anxious about mathematics are more likely to avoid it, thereby missing important learning milestones and falling behind their peers. This in turn increases the initial anxiety, and the cycle continues.
The consequences aren’t just limited to the mathematics classroom either. A 2018 study found that mathematics-anxious students had difficulty concentrating and committing effort across their other subjects too, with procrastination and avoidance becoming a habit. There’s reason to believe these behaviors persist beyond school too.
The biggest impact, however, is felt by society at large. While governments identify STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) as a vital area of economic growth and innovation, mathematics anxiety has led an increasing number of students to opt-out of this career pathway. In Australia, this has already led to a shortage of skilled workers for STEM industries.
A recent Harvard Gazette article summarized it well:
“STEM careers not only pay more; they’re crucial in the fight against existential threats like climate change, nuclear war, and global diseases…
It’s a huge problem if we lose so many talented and intelligent people to this…”
Contrary to popular belief, mathematics anxiety isn’t a symptom of incompetence. Nor is it the result of being born without a ‘mathematics brain’, as some suggest.
Instead, mathematics anxiety generally stems from how a student perceives their own ability in the subject — regardless of their actual ability level. Even the most gifted student can become terrified of mathematics if they believe:
But what leads a student to think these things?
Mathematics anxiety is often unknowingly instilled by parents who have their own negative attitudes toward the subject. This is reflected in such messages as:
These comments are generally made in an attempt to ease a child’s anxiety — but they do the opposite. Students begin to internalize the idea that they will never succeed at mathematics and receive the implicit message that it’s easier to give up.
Mathematics anxious parents also tend to emulate the teachers that deterred them from mathematics in their own school days. As a result, the punitive and unengaging practices of mathematics teachers decades ago are staying alive through the parents who are now passing them on.
Teachers themselves can also pass on mathematics anxiety, particularly in elementary schools. Surveys from CHOOSEMATHS actually found 40% of primary (elementary) teachers felt inadequately trained to teach the subject.
This is particularly problematic as teachers with less mathematics confidence are more likely to
exacerbate student anxiety by:
Schools and the curriculum
Beyond parents and teachers, the structure of mathematics curricula can also contribute significantly to mathematics anxiety. Specifically, this is due to:
All of these are endemic in western mathematics education despite the harm being frequently acknowledged.
Educational research suggests that students do not ‘grow out of’ mathematics anxiety. This explains why so many parents and teachers hold onto the negative attitudes they themselves developed at school.
Instead, direct intervention is needed to reduce mathematics anxiety. Schools and policymakers have an important role to play by restructuring mathematics curricula and ensuring teachers have adequate training, but there are other things that can be done in homes and classrooms to make a difference.
How parents can reduce mathematics anxiety
Think critically about your own relationship with mathematics. The more aware you are of your own anxieties or misgivings, the less likely you’ll pass these onto your child.