Many people are familiar with the term anxiety, a word relating to worry or a fear of something. How often do people hear this word tied directly to their chosen field of study, as in math anxiety? What is it that causes students to worry or be afraid of math specifically? Sadly, it is estimated that up to 50% of Americans have suffered from math anxiety at some point, and it occurs more often with females than males (Boaler, 2012). I had never been aware of the term math anxiety until the Spring semester of my sophomore year at Doane University when I attended a seminar dealing with the negative impacts of this condition. As a pre-service mathematics teacher, I now want to be better equipped to assist my future learners in dealing with this significant barrier to success in the classroom.
According to Leslie Crawford, a regular contributor at GreatSchools.org, "Math anxiety, also referred to as math phobia, is a negative emotional reaction to a situation that requires mathematical problem solving." (Crawford, 2014). This issue affects many children and adults and can have various triggers. One way that students may develop math anxiety is from a parent who struggles with understanding math concepts and then transfers the fear to their children. Another common cause is an instructor using obstructive vocabulary towards a student's performance. Nothing kills confidence in one's math skills like being told (explicitly or implicitly) that you cannot do it. Another common cause of math anxiety is when a student simply does not grasp a particular content area, which can cascade into future lessons. All of these situations can generate the feeling that the learner is bad at mathematics, and they are debilitating to ongoing performance. As a pre-service teacher, my goal is to create a classroom environment where every student feels they can master the content. There are several steps that I can take to accomplish this goal.
One essential mission for me to prepare to address math anxiety in my classroom is to continually nurture my own positive outlook towards mathematics and seek to develop even stronger skills in my field (Blazer, 2011). Initially, while going through my foundational courses at Doane University, I had believed there was no vital purpose for studying all of the higher levels of mathematics, as I intend to become a high school math teacher. This past year, I have gained a better understanding of the intention of these advanced-level courses, further improving my positive outlook on mathematics overall. Now recognizing that Doane University guided me in the right direction, I intend to continue growing in my appreciation for mathematics and further develop my skills throughout my career.
Another strategy to counter the effects of math anxiety is to make the classroom instruction and content truly relatable for the students. In mathematics pedagogical discussions, we often hear the need to utilize "real-world situations" in our classrooms. Therefore, we must continually evaluate whether the material presented is actually familiar to the learners- or risk their confusion and increase their stress levels. For instance, traveling to the toy store or a game store to spend their money, sharing candy around Halloween to teach about division, or visualizing a soda can to demonstrate the volume of cylinders might be valid real-life scenarios that students can relate to. Whatever the lesson objectives, it is critical to incorporate illustrations and contexts that students can identify with to keep them engaged and help them visualize math in the world around them.
A third way to minimize math anxiety in our students is to incorporate multiple, distinct learning styles within the classroom, such as: physical, verbal, and visual learning. It is crucial to recognize that students do not all learn the same way. Some educators disregard alternative learning styles and educate primarily towards a specific learning mode. This practice can discourage students and lead learners to believe they are "bad at math" because they do not learn the same way as their peers. As educators, we should be attending to one hundred percent of our learners and consider the various learning styles of our students. For example, physical learners typically appreciate practice problems and group projects. Students who are physical learners can relate better to hands-on activities and interactive projects. Verbal learners may enjoy vocabulary and word problems addressing real-world issues. Students who prefer verbal learning often want to grapple with why a mathematical concept works, then seek to understand the relationship between other mathematical concepts. Finally, our visual learners benefit from seeing figures that represent mathematical problems. A simple example of this is when demonstrating the multiplication problem: three times two. We can visualize this problem as three groups of two utilizing circles! Every student is important and deserves our undivided support, and educators can utilize multiple classroom methods to teach math lessons.
A final consideration for educators preparing to address math anxiety with their students involves maintaining an open and accessible disposition. Students need to be aware that their math teacher is available to provide assistance when they are struggling. Teachers can encourage their students to ask questions and request help, and this should be communicated consistently throughout the year, not just at the start of the semester. In my future classroom, I desire to create a safe, welcoming environment to support my students. I want them to be able and willing to ask questions. I also want the students to know that it is okay to make mistakes, that this is part of the learning process, and part of what it means to be a human. I am sure I will model this process by making mistakes myself from time-to-time :) In doing so, I will demonstrate how to overcome the error, learn from the mistake, even laugh and try again! Students need to be taught that mistakes are normal and are merely learning experiences. I believe this will help reduce the impacts of math anxiety and overcome many students' fear of getting the wrong answer.
In summary, math anxiety is a real and present challenge for many students in our mathematics classrooms. I have begun this journey to discover how to help my future students minimize or overcome the impact. I intend to continue nurturing my love for mathematics and developing my math skills to model a positive learning environment for my students. I have concluded that it is essential to attend to all students and their various learning styles while relating the content to real-life situations familiar to them. I believe students must be shown that they are important and that we, as educators, care for them as individuals. Finally, we must cultivate an atmosphere that encourages students to seek help when needed. This objective will be accomplished by establishing that mistakes are learning experiences. I encourage pre-service mathematics teachers to join me in this journey to help students overcome math anxiety.
- Blazer, C. (2011). “Strategies for Reducing Math Anxiety” Information Capsule Research Services, Vol. 1102, Sept. 2011, https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED536509.pdf
- Boaler, J. (2012). “Timed Tests and the Development of Math Anxiety” EdWeek, July 2012, https://www.edweek.org/teaching-learning/opinion-timed-tests-and-the-dev...
- Crawford, L. (2014). “Simone's Math Problem” GreatSchools.org, April 18, 2014, www.greatschools.org/gk/articles/math-anxiety-why-are-kids-afraid-of-math/
Jazzmyn Boucher (’22) is a Noyce scholar at Doane University. She plans to teach mathematics in a high-need secondary school upon graduation.