Math Anxiety help

How do you help your students overcome math anxiety?

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Comments: 51
  • #1

    Panitz (Friday, 29 May 2009 19:10)

    If you are looking for some inspiration please check out my upcoming article:

    Cooperative Learning Structures Help College Students Reduce Math Anxiety and Succeed In Developmental Courses

    published in: In Press Millis, B. J. (Ed). (2009). Cooperative Learning in Higher Education: Across the Disciplines, Across the Academy. Sterling, VA: Stylus Press.

    The full article may be accessed at:

  • #2

    Schlueter (Tuesday, 02 June 2009 11:39)

    I work exclusively with women, so I emphasize that we're good at manipulating--husbands, boyfriends, children, etc. Math is just manipulating numbers and letters, so if we know the rules, we can excel at that too. I also use real life examples that they find less threatening, such as sales at Penney's or recipe manipulations. Once they realize they can do those calculations (MATH!). they build confidence to work out testbook problems.

  • #3

    K. Van Wagoner (Tuesday, 02 June 2009 16:16)

    Utah Valley University is an open enrollment school. We have a complete developmental math department. Our institution offers everything from basic mathematics through a bachelor degree in math.

    At the beginning of each semester we hold a math orienation for all developmental and quantitative literacy level math students. We give them as much information as we can squeeze into 50 mins that is pertinent to their ability to successfully navigate their way through their math requirements: course sequences, delivery options, supplemental programs (SI, SLA, some math appreciation, and tips for success.

    A key part of the presentation is when I explain to students 3 main reasons people don't succeed in math. These reasons are based on what I have observed with the students on our campus. I point out that students often attribute failure to a personal inability to learn math, when usually they have set themselves up to fail based on one or more of these 3 reasons. 1. Fear and anxiety. This causes the brain to stop working properly. If you can't think, you can't learn. You must start by changing your thinking. I make everyone stand up and yell, "I love math!" You have to say this even if you are lying to yourself. "If you think you can or you think you can't - you are right." Henry Ford I talk about relaxation and we do a short relaxation technique. 2. Learning gaps. Either due to a poor grade in a pre-requisite course or a long time between classes, students are often working at a level that is above their knowledge base. You can't build on a weak foundation. We discuss a little about the brain research. I encourage students to drop down a level if they are already confused in their math class. 3. Unrealistic time expectations. Often we get students who are single, working mothers of 6 going to school full-time (or some variation of that) who can't understand why they can't do well in math, even though they barely have time to "get through" their homework (not necessarily learn anything). Learning math takes time. (Growing dendrites takes time.) I EMPASIZE that students should not claim to be unable to learn math if they are not creating the circumstances which best facilitate learning math.

    At the end of math orientation we introduce resources such as the Math Lab, the learning strategist and math advisors (who will then see a number of students wanting to change to a lower level class).

    That's a quick overview. We give students knowledge and tools to be successful which helps to reduce anxiety.

  • #4

    Robert Hackworth (Thursday, 04 June 2009 23:33)

    This is a serious problem. A superficial treatment of the anxiety problem attacks its symptoms rather than its cause. The benefits of such treatments may be less than the harm.

    A cure, if there is one, requires the student with anxiety to gain control
    over his/her learning environment. But schools and the personnel within
    them are constantly striving to control the students' environment. It is
    very difficult to accomodate the needs of the student with those of the

  • #5

    David Shinn (Thursday, 04 June 2009 23:35)

    What would be an example of a student gaining "control over his/her learning environment" that conflicts with the schools' efforts to
    control the student's environment?

  • #6

    Reggie Jean (Thursday, 04 June 2009 23:40)

    I agree with you. Having students feel in control of their learning and the subject takes time (and patience and toughness from instructors and tutors).

    Ironically I was working with a new student in our program yesterday on Math. She is in the 9th grade. When she came to the office the mere mention that she was going to work on Math made her cringe and exclaim, "I am not good at math," and, "It takes me a long time". What had begun as a test she needed to take for math placement for our summer classes, turned into a mini coaching and review session. It became clear where she would need to be placed on her initial answers, so it became a good opportunity to inform her that with math there is only one right answer (99% of the time) and that the
    goal was to find the right answer, not to be fast. I encouraged her to take her time and told her the more she practices and learns the basics the quicker it would get. I tried to meet her where she was (which in this
    instance she was still using dashes on scrap paper to add and subtract). Part of the coaching then turned to exclaiming that it was clear she had the fundamentals of math down, and that she will be able to learn different steps to solve the problems quicker, but always be able to check her work by going "backwards". In essence, math was "in her control" and being good at math was attainable if she worked at it. By the end of the "session" her disposition changed and she became cheerful. The seed was now planted, and this summer we will be able to work with her one on one with tutors and
    teachers and as a part of a class to help solidify her foundation and build
    her confidence.

  • #7

    Kathryn Van Wagoner (Thursday, 04 June 2009 23:42)

    To help students have a sense of control in the classroom start by reading:

    "Death to the Syllabus!" by Mano Singham, Liberal Education, Fall 2007


    Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice by Maryellen Weimer

  • #8

    Sara Weertz (Thursday, 04 June 2009 23:44)

    I don't think the issue is the "school's effort to control the student's learning environment." I think the issue is the vast difference between a learner-centered school and a teacher-centered school. Instructors who use a learner-centered approach quickly discover resistance from students because this type of learning is foreign. Students aren't used to this kind of instruction. The typical student is familiar with the passive learning environment and thinks that teaching means lecturing and studying means going to class and/or reading the text. (Sadly the myth persists that you only need to do one or the other according to how the instructor teaches.) In a learner-centered environment, where the instructor applies collaborative learning activities and classroom assessment techniques, students initially gauge a sense of doom--in math classes this could be identified as math anxiety--because now the students are forced to broadcast (that's what it feels like) their struggles with the subject. They would much rather suffer alone but only because they have not learned the value of a learner-centered environment.

    I also don't believe it's a question of "how a student gains control of his/her learning environment" but rather a personal understanding of how the student learns; that is, what he/she needs to do to learn the material in an effort to compensate for the difference in the instructional style. This is where the true test of studying comes into play. It takes the more sophisticated student to understand that she's responsible for her own learning. Until students get to this point they will continue to blame everyone else for their lack of learning.

  • #9

    Christine Zielinski (Thursday, 04 June 2009 23:47)

    One of the best sources for help with math anxiety was written some years ago by Sheila Tobias. When she had similar questions about her students, she decided to "go back to school" and experience things first hand.

    The last book she wrote on the topic, that I am aware of, is "Overcoming Math Anxiety." Good insight and practical ideas.

  • #10

    Nic Voge (Thursday, 04 June 2009 23:51)

    I think you articulate a fundamental conundrum in education as it relates to the issue of math anxiety. How do educators control or at least "manage" the teaching-learning environment while at the same time allowing students to have control of their learning. We know that a sense of control and responsibility are vital formotivation,
    engagement, risk-taking and all kinds of other aspects of genuine learning. Interestingly, I think college learning support has a unique vantage point on this issue. First, our centers or spaces are NOT the same as the classroom which is under the control of the instructor. This alternate space may provide the basis for students gaining greater control of their learning. Second, at the post-secondary level much, if not most, learning happens outside of the classroom and class time. This, too, poses an opportunity to for students toexperience
    their processes of learning in different ways. Not the least because we are not expected to evaluate students' performance.

    I'm particularly interested in the issue of what happens outside of classrooms and other institutional locales. We know so little about what college students actually do outside of classrooms, yet they are often expected to do the majority of learning in such situations. How,empirically, do we find out what students do in these situations? How might we positively impact those activities?

    Thanks for framing this issue in a way that it bears on broader educational issues,

  • #11

    Kathryn Van Wagoner (Thursday, 04 June 2009 23:53)

    I think this is an interesting perspective regarding math anxiety. I think this is the case for some, but not all, students.

    >From "Conquering Math Anxiety: A self-help Workbook" by Cynthia Arem

    Anxiety appears to arise in math class, but it may not be caused by math itself.It seems that math acts as a fine magnifying lens,
    bringing into sharp focus a host of other academic deficiencies such as poor study skills, knowledge gaps, or inadequate test preparation or test taking skills. Anxiety expressed about math thus becomes a symptom
    and not the disease itself.

  • #12

    Stewart, Carol (Thursday, 04 June 2009 23:55)

    As a math instructor, that's exactly what I perceive in my low level algebra classes. The students truly cannot do the math, but they also won't go to the Math lab for help, won't complete their homework(even though it's graded), don't read the book (even though they know I choose some quiz and test problems from the worked out examples in the book), don't take notes in class, skip frequently (even though attendance is graded) and then claim math anxiety. I know there are some students with a real math anxiety, but many years experience says they are relatively few. Most of them seem to lack the self-discipline to help themselves succeed in a subject they don't like and that is not easy for them. The self-discipline problem seems to be much worse in the last few years; I end up wondering if No Child Left Behind has unintentionally added to this issue.

    The sad part is that the course in which this happens most is remedial math for those who think they want to be engineers. Obviously, most of them don't make it. What surprises me is that they do work and do succeed in my statistics classes, which require the same level of math preparation and about the same amount of work.

  • #13

    Carolyn Hoessler (Sunday, 07 June 2009 15:54)

    I have noticed that students may start off with being afraid or disliking of math in general, yet often the root is specific difficulties or situations. Practice and instruction can help with the challenging parts, with accomplishment often leading to reduced anxiety.

    The first step in my experience is to ask "Why?" when they state "I don't like math" or I'm not good at math" . In many cases they have said I'm the first to ask/challenge them why -- usually such as statement is agreed with in their experience.

    One anxiety I have found several times that is not tied directly to computation or numbers is a fear of getting a question and not knowing how to do it. The anxiety is often strong enough that all I need to do is put a simple question or even an entirely blank page in front of them to trigger a response. Providing time to relax and to practice a step-by-step approach of writing "what is known", "What is asked for", "what is needed"... usually helped.

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