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Reducing Math Anxiety

Date: 08/26/2005 at 23:30:30
From: Maricel
Subject: How to overcome math anxiety

I am a teacher in the tertiary level.  I would like to know ways by 
which students math anxiety can be overcome?

Date: 08/27/2005 at 12:02:00
From: Doctor Ian
Subject: Re: How to overcome math anxiety

Hi Maricel,

I think the best way to reduce math anxiety is by never trying to
explain something in terms of concepts that aren't already well 
understood by the students. 

Think about some topic that you know relatively little about (e.g.,
monetary policy), and imagine that you're attending a lecture for
specialists in that field.  The speaker is trying to explain some
concept, but he's doing it using vocabulary that you don't really
understand (even though some of it, like "interest rates", may sound
somewhat familiar).  Now imagine that you know you're going to be
tested on what the speaker has been talking about later on.

You'd probably feel pretty anxious, wouldn't you?  That's how a lot of
your students feel when you use terms that they recognize but don't
actually, thoroughly understand.  

- Doctor Ian, The Math Forum

Date: 08/27/2005 at 17:26:45
From: Doctor Wilko
Subject: Re: How to overcome math anxiety

Hi Maricel,

I just wanted to add some information to what Dr. Ian said.  

This is an excerpt from a paper I worked on a couple years back.  If
you read through this you may be able to pull out a couple "nuggets"
of information that may be helpful to you:

...Tobias explains that math anxiety is an obsession with the idea 
that "everyone knows that I don't understand".  "I'd better not draw 
attention to myself by asking questions" (Cited in Stuart, 2000).

This feeling of fear can cause headaches, queasy stomach, sweaty 
palms, dry mouth, and eventually can even develop into math avoidance 
or math phobia.  Math anxiety can be conquered if teachers and parents 
work together to understand its causes, as well as implement effective 
strategies to reduce its harmful effect on students.
One of the first and obvious places where math anxiety can develop 
for a student is his or her home.  A parent or guardian's influence 
on their child is crucial to how the child views and interprets his 
or her environment.  A child may view math as being unimportant if 
his or her parents either do not like math or see it as useless.  
Many times parents can be heard saying, "I was never good at math" 
or "math was hard for me, so I don't expect my child to be able to 
understand it either".  Parents need to encourage their children to 
do their best regardless of how they did in the subject.  In 
addition to just encouraging their children, parents can become 
involved by working together with the teacher to make a difference 
for the child.  The main idea stressed here is attitude.  A child's 
attitude will be affected by his or her parent's attitude towards 

Not only are the attitudes of a parent important, but also those of 
a student's teacher.  Teachers, probably second to parents, are 
students' most important influence in how they view math.  Jackson 
and Leffingwell (1999) conducted research that reveals three 
categories of grade levels where math anxiety occurs:

1. Elementary level, grades 3 and 4.
2. High School level, grades 9-11.
3. College level, freshman year.

Students face an increase in the level of difficulty during fourth 
grade.  These students are learning more complex concepts, such as 
fractions, taking timed tests in competition with their peers, and 
having to memorize multiplication tables and formulas.  On top of 
this increased pressure that students experience, their teachers may 
get angry when asked for help, and even point out their mistakes in 
front of the entire class.

The next cluster of students who experience math anxiety are in high 
school between ninth and eleventh grades.  Again, here a teacher's 
attitude towards math and his or her students can either make or 
break them.  Often high school teachers become angry when asked for 
help and even verbalize that the students should have learned it the 
first time it was taught.  Many high school students also attribute 
their math anxiety to having been forced to go to and stay at the 
chalkboard until they finished a problem that they did not even 
The last cluster where math anxiety can occur is during a student's 
freshman year in college.  Professors often lecture with little 
interaction with their students.  Students who do ask questions may 
feel belittled for not having the prerequisite knowledge.  Professors 
may even dislike or have less patience with entry level math classes.

In addition to the above teacher actions, math anxiety can be induced 
many other ways.  A teacher who emphasizes product over process 
encourages less participation from his or her students.  Students who 
receive a low grade for a mistake, regardless if they understood the 
problem or not, may develop math anxiety.  Many instructors teach math 
as rules and symbols in a chapter by chapter fashion.  As a result, 
students often view math as disconnected bits of information that is 
unrelated to the real world.  Probably one of the greatest teacher 
mistakes is starting a new concept before the current one has been 
mastered, especially since most math is built up from learning 
previous material.

A parent or teacher's attitude toward gender can greatly influence a 
student of any grade level.  According to Jackson and Leffingwell 
(1999), girls are ridiculed more often than boys, given less help 
than boys, and even discouraged from taking math as much as boys.  
However, it is a common myth that boys are better at math than 
girls, and it simply may be society that hinders girls from 
experiencing their math potential.  In fact, research suggests that 
girls start out ahead of boys in talking, reading, and counting 
(Zaslavsky Cited in Fotoples, 2000).

After reviewing the attitudes and actions that contribute to a student 
developing math anxiety, it should be more clear how to prevent this 
condition.  Two main strategies that teachers can use to help 
eliminate math anxiety and build student confidence are demonstrated 
in their emotional and physical actions.
The first area of strategies appeal more to the emotions of students 
and are more general to the classroom environment.  These strategies 
are related to the idea of the importance of teachers' attitudes 
towards students.   Teachers should only use positive talk, encourage 
questions, and demonstrate a sensitive character.  Teachers of this 
character puts themselves in the shoes of their students, acknowledges 
their fears, and have an overall acceptance of all the students.  
Overall, this type of teacher has a safe classroom where students feel 
accepted and are encouraged to learn.

The physical strategies are more specific to the teaching of math.   
Teachers should use manipulatives whenever possible to solidify 
concepts in their students' minds.  Cooperative learning and peer 
tutoring are also highly encouraged.  Students often benefit from 
getting an explanation from the viewpoint of a classmate. In order 
that students do not see math as unrelated and disconnected bits of 
information, teachers should constantly review past material, make 
connections from the math world to the real world, and master concepts
before moving on.  Math anxiety appears to be highest on test days. 
To help with this, teachers need to teach test taking strategies, as
well as give the students study guides to focus them.  

In their book, _Mind Over Math_, Kogelman and Warren (1978) stress 
the importance of acknowledging anxiety and writing about it as a 
first step in dealing with it.  For teachers, this may mean having 
journal writing where students express their feelings about a topic 
being covered or about math in general.  Many teachers also have had 
success by writing up a plan of action in which the teacher and 
student sign it and together remain focused on achieving a goal.

These are just a handful of suggestions that may help students become 
less anxious during math class.
As technology continues to grow, math is becoming more demanded by 
industry.  This demand for math is causing a surge of math anxiety 
for many.  For teachers, the challenge remains to teach math 
effectively without inducing math anxiety in students.  Math anxiety 
can be lessened and possibly eliminated if parents and teachers 
collaborate to understand its causes and implement proper strategies 
to reduce its effect.  As teachers and parents demonstrate an 
accepting, sincere, and positive attitude, they will be able to 
build the confidence of their students. 


Fiore, G. (1999). Math-abused students: are we prepared to teach 
them? Mathematics Teacher, 92 (5), 403-406. Wilson Select Plus. 
Online. OCLC First Search. 24 Oct. 2000.

Fotoples, R.M. (2000). Overcoming math anxiety. Kappa Delta Pi 
Record, 36 (4), 149-151. Wilson Select Plus. Online. OCLC First
Search. 24 Oct. 2000.

Jackson, C.D. & Leffingwell R.J. (1999). The role of instructors in 
creating math anxiety in students from kindergarten through college. 
Mathematics Teacher, 92 (7), 583-586. Wilson Select Plus. Online. 
OCLC First Search. 24 Oct. 2000.

Kogelman, S. & Warren, J. (1978). Mind Over Math. New York: McGraw 

Schwartz, A.E. (2000). Axing math anxiety. The Education Digest, 65 
(5), 62-64. Wilson Select Plus. Online. OCLC First Search. 24 Oct. 2000.

Steale, D.F. & Arth, A.A. (1998). Lowering anxiety in the math 
curriculum. The Education Digest, 63, 18-23. Wilson Select Plus.
Online. OCLC First Search. 24 Oct. 2000.

Stuart, V. B. (2000). Math curse or math anxiety? Teaching Children 
Mathematics, 6 (5), 330-335. Wilson Select Plus. Online. OCLC First 
Search. 24 Oct. 2000.

Does this help?

- Doctor Wilko, The Math Forum

Date: 08/29/2005 at 04:48:43
From: Maricel
Subject: Thank you (How to overcome math anxiety)

Thank you so much for your reply.  I really want to help my students
like math.
Associated Topics:
High School About Math

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