Learn what math anxiety is and how to reduce it among your students

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If you teach mathematics, you might be familiar with hearing your students saying things like “math is hard”, “math sucks” or “I’m so bad at math”. Negative attitudes towards math are so widespread that this is the only subject that can become a particular phobia (Ashcraft & Ridley, 2005). Now we will explore what is math anxiety and give you some tips to handle it properly in your class.

What is math anxiety

According to Richardson and Suinn (1972, p. 551), math anxiety is “a feeling of tension and anxiety that interferes with the manipulation of numbers and the solving of mathematical problems in a wide variety of ordinary life and academic situations”. It is a continuum that varies from light frustrations to extreme emotional and physiological disruptions (Ashcraft, & Moore, 2009).

Maybe you have already identified these anxious reactions in your class: nervous laughs, shaking hands, tense expressions, or even desperate tears. However, math anxiety is not always externalized. Students who experience it might just look uninterested in your lessons or directly avoid them.

Math anxiety can have a negative impact on cognitive processes like attention or memory (Ashcraft & Krause, 2007). If the student is too distressed thinking about her/his/their ‘lack of talent’ to learn math, she/he/they won’t be able to focus on the lesson.

Math anxiety is strongly negatively correlated with variables like motivation and self-confidence (Ashcraft, 2002). Consequently, apart from hindering performance and obstructing daily tasks like checking the bills, math anxiety can discourage students from pursuing careers that involve math or push them to abandon their studies.

Therefore, math anxiety does not only harm your student’s mental well-being but can also harm your students’ job prospects in the future. Especially, considering the relevance of quantitative skills, how demanded STEM profiles are, and how important numeracy is to be a well-equipped person.

Preventing math anxiety and identifying the students who suffer from it is essential from the beginning of the course. But wait, what causes math anxiety?

student studying

What causes math anxiety

Firstly, we should note that math anxiety is not related to other variables like general anxiety, intelligence, working memory, or reading ability (Young et al., 2012). Neither to somebody’s math skills.

Although the causes of math anxiety are still not totally clear, research points out factors like cognitive predispositions, deficiencies in basic mathematical competencies, or social causes like gender stereotypes and the transmission of negative attitudes towards maths (Maloney & Beilock, 2012).

Further, some experiences related to math can be perceived as traumatic by the students. Unsupportive teacher attitudes might lead to their avoidance of the subject (Turner et al., 2002).

Alright, but what can we do about it? In what follows, we will present some strategies for its prevention and proper handle!

How to reduce math anxiety

1. Identify students struggling with math anxiety

At the beginning of the course, you might have a diverse group of students with different backgrounds and math levels. If you can detect who has special difficulties from the start, you can help them before they get too lost and their math anxiety becomes unbearable.

You can track your students’ progress and offer some extra help to the most vulnerable ones. The ideal solution would be to provide 1-on-1 support to every struggling person. Though, teachers have a huge number of students and limited time.

Luckily, technology can empower you to deal with the math problem. SOWISO facilitates evaluating your students regularly and automatically with tons of practice material adapted to their needs. Here they will have time to think about their answers and to practice without the stress of an immediate formal evaluation.

Thanks to our learning analytics, you will be able to find out who is at risk and with which content. Save time for what matters!

SOWISO forum

2. Address common mistaken beliefs and stereotypes

A lot of your students might think they are “not a math person”. Stereotypes also contribute to these mistaken thoughts. These ideas can lead them to assume that trying is just not worthy. They trigger a passive behavior and can be translated into more math anxiety.

Discussing these conceptions openly and evidencing they are false is useful to deconstruct them. Besides, it’s important to show inspiring role models that prove that some students considered to be bad at math can be brilliant in this discipline with the right support and help at hand. Even successful mathematicians like Maryam Mirzakhani, who was the first woman to win a Fields Medal, suffered from math anxiety.

3. Use feedback to reduce math anxiety

Feedback helps to restructure and confirm the information. It allows the students to change their beliefs about themselves and their competence. If they see that they can solve exercises (or parts of them) correctly, this will boost their confidence and encourage them to keep trying.

Our platform gives specific, immediate, and personalized feedback. Likewise, it is not just right or wrong. With SOWISO, students can practice at their own pace and identify their strengths and weaknesses. They will cope with their math anxiety in a safe and enjoyable environment, receive small gratifications for their achievements and understand how they can improve.

Here you can try our feedback tool!

4. Build a supportive environment to handle math anxiety

Since learning and teaching math has an important affective–motivational dimension, considerate support is crucial to overcome math anxiety. Showing that you understand the students’ special needs is vital. Some ways to build a supportive classroom are giving personal attention and being encouraging, using humor, and promoting peer support (Turner et al., 2002).

Some of your students might feel too shy to express their doubts. With SOWISO, they can practice at their own pace without facing “public embarrassment” on the blackboard. This tool allows them to use an anonymous mode to ask questions in the forums (only you will see her/his/their identity). These details enable the students to engage with the lessons freely and get rid of the pressure of feeling observed.

Moreover, SOWISO has functions that let you add the human touch that learning math requires. For example, you can send personalized notes depending on your students’ marks.

5. Ask them to express themselves to overcome math anxiety

Park et al. (2014) asked students with math anxiety to reflect on their feelings before a math test. This written exercise might have helped them understand and regulate their emotions, so their cognitive resources were available later to focus on the exam. Additionally, it improved their performance in the test.

With SOWISO, you can try and add open questions to your exams. You can set specific adjustments for students that have special conditions. For example, if they need more time due to personal circumstances or learning needs. We strive to enable you to make your classroom as personalized and user-friendly as possible!

If you want to learn more, you can also watch this video by TEDed that explains math anxiety:

We hope you enjoyed this blog post and wish you good luck reducing your students’ math anxiety! To learn more about our platform, feel free to create a free teacher demo account or drop us a line.


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