The Voices of Math Anxiety

Gillian A. Tisdale
Jul 7 · 18 min read

No other subject parallels math in terms of the fear that students feel when faced with it. You’d be hard-pressed to find a student who thinks that they are intrinsically incapable of understanding literature or geography, yet countless children and adults alike hold the belief that they ‘just can’t do math.’

Staring at the whiteboard while symbols pass them by amidst the steady drone of vocalized arithmetic, these students are being left behind. They do not understand the applications of math or why it matters. Moreover, they are expected to grasp the subject quickly, memorizing theorems and methodologies without being taught the reasons why these attributes work the way they do.

I interviewed five adults who have struggled with math anxiety throughout their educational upbringing. You’ll hear from a PhD candidate, a singer, a nurse, a marketer, and an operations manager. This phenomenon spans the globe, with our anecdotes drawing from Greece, the United Kingdom, and the USA. Some of these individuals had to conquer their fears in order to follow their dreams, such as the nurse whose drive to help others compelled her to learn measurement calculations for drugs and infusions. Others adapted around the anxiety, pursuing passions that circumvented math. One of them had a natural gift for math yet still struggled with the apparent meaninglessness of it, ultimately finding the joy in math and ending up in a quantitative field. In a way, none of these stories is unique — so many of us have struggled with the same barriers trying to overcome math anxiety.

Memorization versus Exploration

At heart, there is something fundamentally wrong with the way we teach math. Throughout this piece, we’ll discuss a few of the ways in which we could improve math pedagogy, starting with the focus on rote memorization.

Across every single interview, participants brought up the idea that math was something to be memorized, rather than played with and deeply understood. Memorization is not inherent to the field; and yet, math has become something to be recited on tests rather than to be understand.

The whole of high school we were told that you were learning to pass exams, nothing else. (Emily, nurse, U.K.)

Mathematics — when taught well — provides an opportune stage for students to explore, feeling for the boundaries of logical pathways by way of trial and error. If a child postulates that 2+2=5, outside information is not required to help them see why this isn’t possible. In fact, this attribute is relatively unique to the field, for most other subjects do require external input: a history lesson relies on firsthand recollection and a science class relies on direct experimentation.

Math utilizes a self-contained system, and yet it is consistently taught via memorization rather than exploration. Emily*, the speaker above, said it was understood that the purpose of her class was to memorize the correct methods. Although she would try to understand the meaning and underlying systems, there was only so much she could do on her own.

Asking for Help

Emily continued by describing how math was the only subject where she felt she couldn’t ask clarifying questions. Prior to high school, she felt that there was room for the class to move at its own pace, but that changed when the curriculum turned to passing the state-mandated GCSEs.** The teacher would put problems on the board with no further discussion or room for probing.

Ali, who was educated through high school in England and is now pursuing a Ph.D. in literature in the United States, said that teachers expected students to blindly memorize material as early as kindergarten, and this memorization did not leave room for questions. “The teacher wasn’t patient. She would explain something once and expect you to immediately get it.” This extended through her American university statistics course, in which the professor teaching her introductory precalculus course looked “frustrated” when students didn’t grasp concepts immediately.

For Erin, a Midwest-educated marketer, age-appropriate pride kept her back from asking for help. Although she felt that her math teachers practiced similar pedagogies as in other subjects, she had a weaker foundation in math and so often didn’t understand the answers when she did ask a question. “Sometimes my question would be answered,” said Erin, “and I didn’t understand it, and then I’d shut down.” Grasping the answer felt high-stakes — as if it defined whether it not she could succeed in these difficult classes — and her stymied understanding dissuaded her from future inquiry.

Helen, a Greek singer, didn’t have the opportunity to ask for help in the first place. The expectation in Greek schools was that teachers would not be available for assistance, compelling nearly all students to pay for outside tutoring. “Only the very strong students who were organized and had help at home didn’t face problems,” recalled Helen. “Gradually, [without help], I started having serious problems.”

Many teachers assumed that the students understood intuitively, which Helen posited was because “they didn’t want to give help.” In the Greek system, she said, teachers often “weren’t in the mood to actually teach,” and whether you would receive a full explanation of the material depended on the personality of the teacher. This implicit assumption of understanding was particularly difficult when you missed a day of class, said American-educated John, where each day would cover a specific skill and absent students would not be able to catch up without asking — which, of course, most students did not feel comfortable doing.

No Point of Entry

Without help from teachers, Ali felt lost in math. Since math is often not encouraged in the home or in daily life, particularly for young girls, she did not even have the benefit of consistent non-academic exposure. While other subjects appeared to have a clear point of entry — sciences tie back to your experience of the world, native language studies explore stories, history is a recollection of events — math seemed like a black box. “I never felt like I couldn’t understand a book,” Ali said.

She believed she could bootstrap her way through anything linguistically-based and accessible, but math didn’t fall into this category. With other subjects, there are elements “that are in our lives…[so] we feel more comfortable with them,” said Helen. Similarly, Emily expressed that “it’s almost like it’s in another language,” although a language that isn’t taught.

The idea of math as an impenetrable language permeated our conversations. Helen put it this way: “It was like I had to read a literature book, but I could only spell.” Without the tools to grasp math, and without an accessibility tied to the ‘real world’, so many students feel lost.

Learning in a Vacuum

Whether math seems to come naturally or requires concerted effort, most students struggle with understanding why they are learning it in the first place. Most other subjects have obvious applications: the natural sciences outline how the world works; literature, art, and music convey deeper meanings; history aids us in not repeating it.

The two most obvious applications for math are (1) calculations in the natural sciences and (2) practical daily use (e.g., budgeting, taxes, etc.). Students often aren’t shown these connections, leaving them to believe that it is an arbitrary field taught for the sake of learning and perhaps technical careers. Emily said that her teachers “didn’t try to make it relevant to [their] lives;” and, although she particularly enjoyed biology, she never made connection between the two disciplines.

I don’t recall us ever understanding why we were doing what we were doing. (Ali, Ph.D. candidate, USA)

Ali did, however, recall liking algebra because it connected to chemistry, but didn’t appreciate this application of math until in high school when it felt too late to catch up. She had a natural curiosity for other subjects — which had “obvious utility” — but never felt curious about math. On one occasion in middle school, her class had a unit on using math to analyze bodily metrics (such a height, weight), which she remembers vividly as being the first engaging element they had been taught.

While Emily ended up be required to learn math for her nursing degree, she initially though it was boring and convinced herself that she didn’t need it. She would often skip class or sit there and tune out. Similarly, John — who now works with logical systems all day in his role as an operations manager — felt that higher level math was “pointless”. Math after algebra no longer seemed applicable and the teacher “didn’t try to bridge that gap,” leaving even naturally talented students without the desire to continue trying.

When in college John could finally choose his classes and had to do math as a part of his business curriculum, he had a deeper understanding of how it connected to the real world, which his professors reinforced. Finally, a student who despite doing well in his courses had felt a continual sense of anxiety started to understand why functions applied in the way they do. The way John described it, it previously felt like he was skating over the surface of the subject, hitting the right marks without feeling secure in its underpinnings. Once he understood those foundations, his anxiety finally melted away.

Arbitrary Constraints

Further exacerbating the issue for Ali was the existence of timed tests that measured precision rather than comprehension. After repeatedly flunking timed tests, she convinced her college statistics professor to allow her to write a rigorous statistical analysis rather than taking the final exam. The ‘A’ she received pulled up her entire grade; she claims this is because she’s “good at writing”, yet a statistical analysis is closer to what a real-life statistician would do than timed problem sets are, indicating that this grade was more reflective of her understanding of the material.

Repetitive testing is helpful to ensure that students can complete problems on their own. Yet, this is rarely employed for more qualitative subjects, which can absolutely be measured with timed, constrained essay writing. In my own college education — where I received a dual degree in philosophy and mathematical logic — I sat for only two timed philosophy tests, but on the converse, received only three take-home mathematics exams / analyses from a few very progressive professors.

Erin did exceptionally well on her math homework because she had the luxury of time, but tanked pressurized testing. Conversely, John was always a good test taker, but refused to do his homework because it felt arbitrary and meaningless, and he could coast along, passing tests on natural ability alone. In fact, he could not understand what was going on and still get a passing grade, resulting in a feeling of “resignation: I’m just going to do the best I can do.” Where Erin was wrongly penalized for her inability to perform on standardized tests, John’s abilities too were not accurately reflected, as he received good grades but did not understand the material.

Across three countries with different educational systems but a commonality of highly standardized and constrained testing, these experiences indicate a wider issues of how arbitrary metrics affect students’ ability to perform well and even think highly of their own competency.

Can’t Catch Up

Once students believe they’ve fallen behind in the subject, it can feel difficult to catch up to where they’re expected to be. This is further exacerbated by the tiering system most educational institutions use to each math, which arguably benefits those who place into higher sections (and most likely have a natural proclivity for math) but demoralizes those in lower sets.

Ali and Emily — both educated in the U.K. — knew that they weren’t in the top tier of math and believed this indicated that they could never make it past a certain level. In a way, they weren’t wrong: in the British educational system, students are capped at a highest possible grade based on the set they’re in, even though they all take the same test. Similarly, in the USA, weighted averages keep high school students from ever seeing beyond a 4.0 if they are in a lower-level course, making it difficult to compete with those who ace the upper-tier sets for admission into top universities.

“I felt resistant,” Ali recalled, as soon as her class divided into tiers. Emily elaborated, “if you’re not good, you almost think you shouldn’t try […] you think you must be bad.” This is an experience these individuals never had outside of math, which was unequivocally segmented as a subject. Emily and Ali both were in lower tier classes and suffered by being around apathetic teachers (and often students). Similarly, Erin struggled to stay out of these low tiered classes, preferring to not understand in upper tiered courses rather than “be put into a class with the ‘dumb’ math kids.”

John believed that he was placed in a reasonable math level, solidly in the middle of the tiering system, even though he was in the top tier for all other subjects. While the class felt like a comfortable fit, he was conscious that his placement was incongruent to the rest of his education. This wasn’t demoralizing, but did allow him to coast along, relying on his natural talent because he had no reason to try, believing that math was not a useful subject. Because he coasted, he struggled once he reached upper level classes in university, possessing only foundational knowledge based natural aptitude rather than concerted learning.

The one exception to tiering was the Greek system, described by Helen, who conversely empathized with teachers who “were in a bad position to teach different levels of students”, since they could not tailor the single class to particular levels. With Helen, she said, “It was a matter of preparation.” By the time she reached high school, she felt “insecure” as the material suddenly became more complicated. “If you’re not a strong student from an early age […] there isn’t enough of a foundation.” When she switched to a private school midway through high school she received more help but “my gaps were in the basic stuff”, and it was too late to fill them in.

Interestingly, this idea that once you’re doing poorly you ‘can’t catch up’ spanned all of these students, both in systems with and without tiering. In the school systems with tiering, the levels served to highlight when students were doing poorly, but Helen’s experience indicates that it may not be the root cause of their difficulty. And yet no matter what the cause, all of these students struggled to repair their foundations when they eventually wanted or needed to take upper level math for university — which they all eventually did.

Closing Invisible Doors

At a certain point, it becomes difficult to catch up, but not impossible. In high school, Ali discovered a love of geography and chemistry, pushing herself to succeed in subjects that she hadn’t naturally taken to but really enjoyed. Yet in her schooling system, she was required to select 3-4 ‘A-levels’ for her final two years of school, leaving no room for error. In order to get into a good college, she believed that she had to take classes in which she could clearly excel.

I wanted to do the things I was passionate about but was forced to choose what I was actually good at. (Ali, Ph.D. candidate, USA)

Once in university, it felt too difficult to catch up. There were no tutors available and even rudimentary math classes required preexisting knowledge that she didn’t have. She tried to supplement her academics with online sources, such as Khan Academy and mathematically-inclined friends, but ultimately believed that she couldn’t catch up in time to shift her career trajectory.

Now, as a university lecturer and Ph.D. candidate, she says that when she has to do basic arithmetic in front of her students (e.g., dividing them into equal groups) they “know” she can’t do math. This situation still causes her anxiety, as do other arithmetical functions of everyday life, such as banking, loans, budgeting, and even adding tax to the end of a bill.

In Helen’s case, she was held back from actually entering university to begin with. During the last few years of high school she faced problems because of math, and ultimately was not able to pass the admittance exams to the public Greek university because of them. Her workaround was to enter the American university in Greece, which didn’t have the same requirements, although there are systemic barriers to others doing the same. Equally fortunately, her brother ended up going to school in the USA, as he also did not pass his exams. Remarkably: in a way that is highly indicative of the arbitrary nature of these exams, her brother ended up flourishing in mathematics in college and majored in the subject at a top-tier school.

Ending up in a relatively quantitative business program, John was consistently confronted with math at the university level. He was able to recoup his understanding of the ‘why’ behind math to succeed in these courses, although this required a true reimagining of what math meant. It was only when he was surrounded by professors who finally took the time to explain the ‘why’ behind mathematical problems that he found the enjoyment in math. Now an operations manager, he has to use Boolean systems regularly and is confident that he has the fundamental skills and understanding to figure it out. He’s currently taking extra programming courses on the side to diversify his skillset, and says he gains a “sense of accomplishment” from solving quantitative problems. “I love this kind of stuff,” John says, and luckily, he’s been able to catch up and seize it.

Emily, who realized in high school that she wanted to be a nurse, forced herself to learn math outside of school. In the educational system at the time, she wasn’t required to take quantitative courses to be admitted into a top diploma program but was verbally confronted with her GCSE scores in the interview. Despite the gap in math courses that she had between 16 (when she could drop mathematics all together) and 18 (when she began her nursing diploma), she was required to do complex calculations in her practical training.

To fulfill this passion, Emily sought help from a tutor outside of her main program. She met with the tutor throughout the entirety of nursing school and found success because the teacher “explained math in an entirely new way.” There were no math classes in her college, which freed her from arbitrary constraints — like timed testing — to focus on what worked for her cognitive disposition.

For Erin, the realization that math was a necessary tool occurred the earliest. Erin described how her elementary math education bordered on gimmicky, learning times tables through rhymes: “Eight squared is two snowmen together (8). They have sticks (arms) for the fire, so it’s sixty-four.” When she entered middle school math suddenly became far more challenging, but she wasn’t set up for success. While she disliked math in elementary school, her anxiety skyrocketed from “I see this anxiety” to “this anxiety controls me”. After seventh grade, Erin confided that she never took a math test without crying.

The effects of this lag magnified as she moved through school. In high school, she enjoyed other subjects more and started to avoid subjects like math. She could “just get by” without them, so when she didn’t initially pass the test to receive college credit for her final math class, she refused to retake it since she could graduate without it. This came back to bite her in college, however, when she could have used the credit to opt out of the distribution requirement for math. “My entire college career was spent identifying what degree I could get without math,” recalled Erin. She all-but graduated from college, participating in the commencement ceremony but not receiving her degree because of the unmet math requirement.

Having successfully navigated her way into a fulfilling career, Erin doesn’t feel held back by her math education and no longer has anxiety when she has to perform quantitative functions in her role as a marketer, such as budgeting and reporting. Erin isn’t the only one who feels calm around math now: Emily, in an effort to remove the “blemish on her record”, is planning to voluntarily retake her GCSEs and feels much more confident now. Taking care of patients is a massive responsibility and her employer encourages all nurses to take their time with calculations, which has provided her with the platform to take pride in her newfound math skills. Math no longer feels scary, especially when done collaboratively with the other nurses.

An Ideal Pedagogy

For one golden year, Ali had a teacher who focused on explaining the underlying structures of mathematics and conducted the course as an exercise in exploration, which was the class she most enjoyed. It’s critical to “associate to people why it matters in the real world,” said John. Children and adults are searching for the ‘why’ behind the problem; since math is not as clearly connected to the real world as other subjects, being utterly foundational as a subject, this needs to be elucidated by professors.

Math is also often taught by removed teachers who don’t appreciate the emotional impact that the subject has on their students. Helen believed that unlike teachers in other subjects, “most of the math teachers were not very emotionally intelligent.” Similarly, Emily also didn’t feel that teachers were “approachable” or warm, although she didn’t have this experience outside of math. When in university Helen had more intuitive professors, she had a much easier time accessing help and understanding the material, because they provided individualized help. Because math is such a fraught subject for so many people, teachers must be empathic to the impact each class has on growing minds. Students cannot universally succeed at a subject when we take it for granted that they will intuit the material.

Furthermore, teachers are unable to accurately gauge how students are doing — and consequently, how much help they need — if we continue to rely on standardized testing. As early as six years old, Ali’s parents were told she was incapable of math and had a learning disability, after which an independent tutor contested that she had perfect natural ability but “hadn’t been taught properly”. We must accommodate for different learning styles and veer away from rote memorization, as that neither teaches true mathematical exploration nor does it work for many students. As Emily said, the “brain is a muscle with no one-size-fits-all approach.” She suggests that teachers outline multiple ways to solve the problem, rather than assuming that one explanation will work for the full class.

Sometimes clever and capable students stopped because they didn’t have the courage to carry on. (Helen, Opera Singer, Greece)

Helen felt an intense loneliness and “had something like a psychological trauma” as a result of her math schooling. Once she “realized it wasn’t [her] fault; it was the system,” she gained clarity around the failings of her education. Prior to her singing career, she studied university-level psychology to understand how the Greek educational system is set up and ultimately fails many students. It is imperative for all of us to have compassion and empathy for those students who are not doing well, who seem checked out, or who don’t appear to be trying. In the current world order, sometimes carrying on is the biggest step.

Words from the Wise

To help those already in a broken system, the people I interviewed had different takes on how students and families should approach their math education. “There’s not many things you can do because the problem has already been created,” lamented Helen. If we cannot fix the system, she advised, parents should take a concerted interest in helping their young children understand the fundamentals and help them “have patience and courage.” Yet, she did not encourage these students to ask for help from the educational systems that have failed them in the first place.

Perhaps in part influenced by her role as an educator, Ali had a different approach: “I’d tell [students] to ask for help and keep asking for help, and not be embarrassed. [You] just have to keep asking.” John echoed this sentiment, advising students to “make sure you’re speaking up and asking questions in class […] ask teachers why it matters — put that on them.”

As someone that didn’t complete homework throughout school, John continued that “homework is not a time-waster”, and that you need to keep on practicing. Finally, he advised: “if you do like math, go to college for it.” Since math is something that so many people struggle with, we need to fight the fear and encourage people to pursue their passions. Notice that he didn’t say that those who feel they are ‘good’ at math should pursue it, only those who enjoy it. This enjoyment is difficult to take when you’re anxious, but if you can break through that membrane into the feeling of learning and growing in the subject, that’s the goal.

The very fact that we’re having this conversation and that there’s a term called ‘math anxiety’ [represents] 99% of the fight. (Erin, Marketer, USA)

Through these individual accounts of the educational system, we can discern a number of tactical areas in which math educators can improve. Furthermore, for students currently struggling through a system that is not set up for their success, it seems like the most promising solution is to relentlessly ask for help — whether from parents, educators, peers, or online — and just keep asking.

This is a lot to expect of young children and teenagers, who have other subjects with which to be concerned, social development, home lives, and more. We are all failing these kids. To start, as Erin said, it is critical that we as a society admit that there is a problem with our pedagogy and that we have a long way to go.

* All names have been changed for privacy.
** GCSE stands for “General Certificate of Secondary Education.” These exams are taken in the U.K. at the end of mandatory schooling (within the older iteration of the system, which has since changed). They encompass all core subjects and are the closest equivalent to passing a GED (‘General Equivalency Degree’) in the USA, although they are part of everyone’s schooling and cannot be taken in lieu of high school.

Gillian A. Tisdale

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Philosophy-agitator, meeting-interrupter, discrimination-disruptor. Freelance writer. gilliantisdale.com

Q.E.D.

Q.E.D.

Reimagining the learning and teaching of mathematics

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