What is math anxiety? And how can we support students who experience it?
What you’ll find in this article on math anxiety:
- What is math anxiety
- Why students develop it
- Strategies for reducing math anxiety and improving student confidence
Math. A divisive word and an even more divisive subject. As one of the original pillars of academia, math is central to every school curriculum the world over. Yet ask a group of adults their sentiment towards maths, and chances are the group will be neatly divided into two camps. Those who feel comfortable with numbers and those who experience palpitations at the mere mention of an equation. But why is this the case?
What is math anxiety?
To understand and address the problem, it helps first to define what it is. Scientists refer to the fear of maths as ‘math anxiety’, which is conceptualized as an emotional issue involving self-doubt and fear of failing when it comes to carrying out math problems. In fact, it’s believed to affect a quarter of the general population.
Children who experience math anxiety often fear performing poorly on math-related tests at school, even if they understand the content. They tend to compare themselves negatively to other students in their ability and sometimes try to avoid tests or quizzes in class as a result.
It’s important to note that math anxiety is different from dyscalculia – which is defined as “a specific and persistent difficulty in understanding numbers” (British Dyslexia Association). Ability is not always a factor in math anxiety; children can be competent at maths and still experience math anxiety.
How do students develop math anxiety?
There are several reasons students may develop or experience math anxiety. Some are individualized, and some are more generalized to the learning environment. We take a look at some of the potential causes below.
Fear of failure
Researchers at Stanford University conducted MRIs to investigate what exactly was happening in the brains of children with maths anxiety when they were faced with a math problem. What they discovered was an increased response in the fear center of the brain. Basically, the children’s brains responded to sums in the same way that people with phobias might react when faced with the thing they’re most afraid of (spiders, snakes, heights).
From a young age, children often associate getting the wrong answer with negative outcomes – i.e., being a failure or not being a ‘good student’. They internalize this ‘right is good’ and ‘wrong is bad’ dichotomy and start to apply it to the world. This causes issues when it comes to mathematics in school, as getting the wrong answer is often part of the process of learning math.
For some students, getting the wrong answer over and over again can take a toll on their confidence. They mentally label themselves as being ‘poor’ at math or it being a ‘difficult’ subject, which causes them to shy away from the subject altogether.
Fear alone might not seem like a good explanation for why some students have such difficulties with math, but the issue arises from how this fear interacts with students’ working memory, which in turn impairs their ability to carry out sums.
Research by Ramieraz et al. (2013) suggests that when students experience math anxiety, their working memory becomes overloaded by the anxiety, which reduces their working memory capacity for dealing with math problems.
Working Memory Issues
Research by Ashcraft and Faust (1994; also by Faust, Ashcraft, & Fleck, 1996) found that students with high math anxiety tended to demonstrate particular difficulty on two-column addition problems (e.g., 26 + 19), which is primarily due to the ‘carrying over’ element of the task.
The researchers found that when problems were answered correctly, it took the high math anxiety students three times as long to do the carrying-over portion of the task as it took the low anxiety students. The conclusion was that individuals with high math anxiety show a slower and more effortful performance of carrying-over-based tasks, as this requires the use of the ‘working memory.’
This is the same phenomenon that happens when you’re presenting to a crowd, and someone puts you on the spot with a question, and you find that your brain has suddenly gone blank. It’s usually not the case that you don’t know the answer; it’s that the anxiety from the situation overloads your working memory at that present moment, leaving you speechless.
Historically, this brain response was advantageous when our ancestors found themselves in those flight or fight scenarios where rapid decisions needed to be made. Unfortunately, it’s not so adaptive when it comes to learning math in the classroom.
Lack of engagement
Part of the problem may also be that students don’t feel connected to the material they’re covering. Compared to other subjects like history and geography that are often rooted in real-life, mathematical concepts can often feel quite abstract.
How can we support students with math anxiety?
Recognizing that a child is experiencing math anxiety is a start when it comes to giving them the right support. However, Mike Ellicock, chief executive of the UK charity National Numeracy, has warned against the dangers of labels as a cover-all explanation. “Labelling and categorizing children into those who can and can’t do maths isn’t helpful. There’s nothing more certain to be a self-fulfilling prophecy… but given encouragement and the right support, everyone can meet a functional level of numeracy.”
So, what can we do to make math less intimating and support those students who may be experiencing math anxiety?
Create a safe environment
The human fear of saying or doing the wrong thing in front of a group of other people is a powerful motivator. It can often lead to avoidant behavior in the classroom. A potential way to reduce the fear and anxiety students feel around math is to foster an atmosphere of acceptance and encouragement in the classroom – even why they get the answer wrong.
When students feel psychologically safe making mistakes in the classroom, they’re less likely to experience anxiety when encountering unfamiliar problems. We recently looked at the benefits of making mistakes in the classroom in one of our other articles.
Use real-world examples
Using real-world data is also a more engaging way of teaching maths. We tend to care about things more when they’re relevant or in closer proximity to us. This is why local news events are often more talked about than world news. In the classroom, students are, therefore, more engaged when topics or problems overlap with their spheres of interest.
Example: when covering statistics, you could ask your students to record their mobile phone screen usage during a week. Using the data, students can calculate the average difference between genders, town vs. countryside dwellers, or makes of mobile phones. Presenting mathematics in this way is more engaging. It also encourages students to think about data in ways they encounter in the real world.
It’s important for students to understand that maths in the real world is messy, and the data doesn’t always behave in an expected way. Problems like this also give experience in finding tools and calculations that best fit the data they are working with. This also helps to build their confidence when they encounter problems that aren’t so neat and straightforward.
Show and tell
Researchers at Stanford University found that two visual areas of the brain are involved when we work on numerical calculations. Using visual explanations is, therefore, an effective way to support these neural pathways when it comes to teaching maths. Using Youtube explainer videos and 3D modeling programs can help to activate these neural pathways, making teaching more effective.
Our screen sharing tool, Montage, allows you and your students to wirelessly share your screens to the main classroom display. As a software solution, it’s installed on the Windows machine connected to your interactive smart boards and projectors. This allows anyone to present to the front of the room without the hassle and restrictions of HDMI cables.
Make thinking visual
We all learn in different ways and have different approaches to tackling a problem. And for some students, it can be hard to articulate how they came to a particular answer. By giving students tools to make thinking visual, we empower them to present their ideas in a way that works for them. This, in turn, builds their confidence when it comes to problem-solving and presenting solutions in the classroom.
As Montage works across app and browser, students can share their screens to the front of the room with ease. The Montage web app is compatible with Chromebooks, iPads, laptops, tablets, or smartphones. This means no complicated setup or apps to download. Regardless of the device they use, all students’ voices are heard
Make it easy to share
Students often worry that they’re “not doing it right” when it comes to math problems. However, seeing other students’ work can often alleviate their anxiety and build confidence in their ability to problem-solve.
For Rachel Prince, an AP teacher from Horizon High School in Arizona, Montage is an essential tool for lessons. Rachel finds it an effective way to encourage her quieter students to present their ideas to the class without the pressure of standing at the front of the room. Plus, With Montage’s Grid View feature, she can invite up to four students to share their work at the same time. This allows her to compare and contrast students’ work and look at different ways of coming to the same answer.
Thanks to Montahe, my students are becoming more involved, more engaged.Rachel Prince, AP Literature Teacher, Horizon High School, Florida
Discover the benefits of Montage in your classroom
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