Mathematics

Taking Anxiety Out of the Equation

By Laura Donnelly — April 20, 2007 2 min read
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The signs of math anxiety vary: Students sometimes act out when it’s time for math class, rush through problem sets, brush off low grades by saying they didn’t try, or simply proclaim that they hate the subject.

The apprehension and self-doubt at the root of such behavior isn’t just an emotional matter; scientific research has shown that these feelings can hamstring students’ ability to do math. What happens, explains University of Chicago assistant psychology professor Sian Beilock, is that anxious thoughts crowd the brain and occupy memory that would otherwise be dedicated to computation, causing students to choke under pressure.

What caused those anxious thoughts in the first place? Some students pick up negative attitudes at home. Others experience what researchers call “stereotype threat,” a self-fulfilling fear of confirming a stereotype—in this case, that girls and minorities aren’t good at math. And some students develop math phobia because of a teacher’s negative feedback.

Hands on: Manipulatives help students grasp abstract math concepts.

But teachers can also help undo the anxiety, experts agree. The first step is to acknowledge that a student’s apprehension is real but fixable. Then go back through the curriculum to figure out where the student started getting lost and apprehensive.

“[Students] are often embarrassed about what they don’t know,” says Joan Marie Rosebush, a senior lecturer at the University of Vermont who taught elementary and middle school math for 10 years.

“Never say to a kid, ‘You should know this,’” says George Poole, a math professor at East Tennessee State University who works with prospective K-8 teachers. “They’re asking for a reason: because they don’t understand.”

Math-anxious students typically respond well to nonnumerical representations of concepts, such as pictures and graphs, according to David Fowler, an associate professor of secondary math education at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. He has found that the best teachers always employ multiple explanations when introducing new ideas.

Students develop computational fluency the same way they gain reading fluency: by practicing the same material many times. So treat math like a foreign language, Rosebush suggests. Translate unfamiliar characters and symbols and practice using them. Fowler advocates out-loud recitation, especially for younger students learning multiplication and division tables. “We recall facts because we hear them,” he says.

Students with math anxiety are most successful when the subject doesn’t feel like work, says Elizabeth Hughes, a former Birmingham, Alabama, 4th grade teacher who now tutors Washington, D.C.-area middle-schoolers in math. Her students go on “shopping sprees” using advertising circulars to work on computation skills, and use Skittles to practice percentages—determining what portion of the candy from a package is purple, for example.

Hughes also tries to get her students out of their seats as often as possible. In an “angle hunt,” for example, kids search the room for acute, obtuse, and right angles. “Math anxiety is mostly [students’] frustration with themselves,” Hughes says. “If you can get them engaged, they like math.”

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A version of this article appeared in the May 01, 2007 edition of Teacher Magazine as Taking Anxiety Out of the Equation

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