Our Students Have Math Anxiety — Now What?

“A person writing with a pencil in a notebook with pencil shavings on it” by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

When we call someone “math anxious,” we may mean it casually, but in reality, math anxiety is quite damaging. Anxiety blocks the working memory of the brain, making it nearly impossible to successfully engage in math tasks or problem solving (Boaler 2012). Many students develop this early, leading to a belief that they “just can’t do math.” Sadly, this debilitating form of anxiety starts as early as five years old and extends into adulthood; it is estimated nearly 50 percent of Americans suffer from math anxiety (Boaler 2012). The good news is that educators can change the path for math-anxious students by eliminating certain practices and fostering healthy mathematical mindsets in the classroom. Here are a few examples.

Pack Up the Timers

Timed testing is a major anxiety trigger for students and one we can easily avoid. Not only does too much focus on speed promote math anxiety, it poorly represents the true nature of mathematics. Mathematicians are not on a quest to calculate quickly; math is about deep understanding, finding patterns, and making connections, not quick answer finding. And timed tests don’t even do what we want them to! Research shows that timed tests do not support students in gaining deep conceptual understanding of mathematics (Ashkraft and Krause 2016). When we turn off the timer and celebrate deep thinking and sense making over speed, student anxiety begins to subside. Instead of asking our kids to just memorize their facts, we can help them to develop true conceptual understanding by giving them time to discover patterns and develop strategies, such as doubling a number twice for a fours multiplication fact. This way, students gain so much more than quick retrieval of facts — they develop number sense. Math anxiety won’t stand a chance against students that can flexibly compose and decompose numbers.

Make Learning Visible

Mathematics is a visual and creative subject, not rote computations, repeated drills, or disconnected procedures. Most often, students with math anxiety do not see how math connects to their lives, our world, or even previously learned math concepts. Making learning visible supports making these connections as well as deep conceptual understanding.

No mathematician is too old to make a model! In fact, making models is a big part of the real work of mathematicians. Students of all ages need access to various manipulatives such as unifix cubes, counters, base ten blocks, number lines, number grids, and rekenreks. In addition, students should have many opportunities to draw what they are thinking, which can help them make sense of the concepts they are learning about. For example, if students are learning to multiply fractions, encourage them to draw a visual representation of their thinking. Challenge them to share and compare their representation with other students. Sharing and discussing representations reduces anxiety, because the focus is no longer on one correct answer or method, but on understanding and sense making.

Choose Words Carefully

As we know, children are always listening! The comments we make directly or indirectly to students shape the way they think about mathematics, learning, and their abilities. Avoid describing individuals as “math people” or implying that only some people have “math brains.” Even as a compliment, this sends the false message that there is such a thing as a math brain that some people have and others don’t — which is wrong! With the exception of people with a few rare learning disabilities, everyone can learn and do mathematics. Suggesting that only certain types of people understand mathematics causes harmful fixed mindsets, even for our highest achievers. At first, these students will seem to flourish with this type of positive praise, but they may begin to avoid mathematics when concepts become more challenging, fearing that they have lost their “math gift” and even more afraid of losing their overall status as “smart.” Instead, compliment students for their hard work. Think about what habits and mindsets you would like to encourage and use those specific words. For example, you might say, “Wow, you stuck with that problem and really persevered!” When students work within a classroom community in which both teachers and students value hard work over performance, anxiety will begin to dissipate, and all children will rise to the challenge.

Group Students Heterogeneously

Supporting our math-anxious students starts with treating them as capable mathematicians that deserve a seat at the table. Every child is a mathematician, and every child deserves the chance to learn mathematics at the highest levels. Students of all abilities can work together to solve complex math problems. Although grouping students by ability seems like a great way to deliver appropriate content to each child at their level, research shows that this is actually quite ineffective and damaging (Boaler 2008). Students that are grouped by ability, often year after year, come to see these groups as labels. The more we tell students that they are low achievers, the more they will believe this and fear mathematics. Instead, consider forming mixed-ability groups. Try giving students a challenging math task, some manipulatives, paper and pencils. Watch as they all approach the problem differently and encourage them to share these differences! When children see a multitude of ways to solve a problem, everyone’s thinking deepens, and students learn more efficient strategies from each other. Mixed-ability grouping supports all students, but most importantly, it communicates to students that they can do this.

Math anxiety has had an unshakable grip on our students for far too long. With a few changes, we can take the fear out of mathematics once and for all.

Gina N. Picha is an elementary instructional coach for a public school district in the Austin, Texas, area. She has served at various public schools in both Illinois and Texas as a teacher and instructional coach. Gina facilitates professional development in all content areas, including mathematics, science, and STEM education. Gina is currently earning her EdD at Concordia University Austin in the area of curriculum and instruction with a focus on math anxiety. Follow Gina on Twitter @ginapicha

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