What's the Deal with Math Anxiety?
Math anxiety is anxiety when asked to do math; it’s more than just a dislike for the subject. Edutopia tells us it can start as early as kindergarten and affects nearly half of elementary students! Unfortunately, the number of occurrences increases as children get older.
According to Frontiers in Psychology, “People have been expressing mathematics anxiety for centuries: the verse “Multiplication is vexation … and practice drives me mad” goes back at least to the sixteenth century. From a research perspective, the construct has been an important topic of study at least since the concept of “number anxiety” was introduced by Dreger and Aiken (1957), and has received increasing attention in recent years, in conjunction with the generally increased focus on mathematical performance.”
Math Anxiety Robs Working Memory
According to a fascinating article from the University of Chicago in their series “Ask a Cogntive Scientist”, a growing amount of research shows that math anxiety robs people of their mental working memory. Working memory is kind of like a scratch pad- it’s where you keep several things in mind simultaneously. Without it, we couldn’t problem solve and complete multiple tasks.
Working memory “space” varies from person to person, and it is required for solving math problems. So, since this anxiety creeps in when doing math, it makes sense that people with math anxiety have less room for working memory. “Anxious thoughts consume valuable working memory space...As a result, [students with math anxiety] have less working memory space to devote to the math, and their math performance suffers.”
Signs of Math Anxiety
Are you wondering which of your students experience math anxiety? It can sometimes be obvious, but Edutopia gives us some signs to look out for:
How to Help?
Luckily, there are plenty of ways to help our students overcome math anxiety!
The first step is noting these common causes. Actually, there are quite a few common causes of math anxiety. It can help to narrow it down to a source so we can guide our students to overcome it. According to Oxford Learning, here are the top common causes:
Once you’ve narrowed down the common causes, try these ideas to help your students:
Since a common cause of math anxiety is public embarrassment, try eliminating disapproval or negative feedback in math class. Reward students for excellent behavior, well-thought out answers, or even extraordinary effort!
Provide students enough time to truly understand math concepts, instead of drilling procedures. Students need a chance to develop conceptual understandings to develop joy in math!
Try having a student write down his or her worries about math before doing it; by thinking critically students can realize their fears aren’t accurate. After jotting down the feeling on a sticky note, they can physically relax the part of the body where they are holding tension while they put it aside, take a deep breath, and jump in to try a problem.
Help your students see tests and quizzes as challenges, rather than a threat to their grade. Reframing how they see math can improve their fears. Offering test corrections can relieve some stress, because students know they can move on and have success.
Swap out your active brain breaks for more meditative brain breaks. When I taught high school Geometry in a Catholic school, I loved beginning each class period with these 3 minute retreats.
Students also enjoy chances to color. I believe in fitting this in alongside the learning goals that are already in place for each day’s lesson. Doodle notes offer a way for students to get the therapeutic benefits of coloring and doodling while still learning the material. This has been proven to activate the parts of the brain that help a student relax, focus, and retain the material. It will take their minds off of the stress and physically relax them! There is a reason that coloring books are becoming a therapeutic trend. The brain benefits are so easy to build into a class period!
I’ve collected some ideas to help you blend fun and rigor in creative ways. My goal is to overcome the negativity that can pop up in math class, while preserving high standards for content learning! (essentially fun without "fluff!") Check out some of these ideas to get started! Click the images to read each post that fits your grade level / course work:
Additional downloads to Help: All of these fun lessons are absolutely free!
Last, but certainly not least, teachers need to show excitement and positivity when it comes to math. Our attitudes rub off on our students, so even if math isn’t your favorite subject, keep your words and actions in mind!
I know I’ve definitely seen the tell-tale signs of math anxiety in some of my students! Have you?
What are you going to do to help them rise above math anxiety? Start by subscribing to Math Giraffe through email! (below) I’ll keep you up to date and send you materials and inspiration to keep the creative blend of fun and rigor flowing in your classroom!
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