Math Anxiety – A Disabling Reality

Guest Blogger: Maria Andriano, MT, OCT

Secondary School Teacher: Toronto Catholic District School Board 

Math Anxiety – “Sudden death where everyone knows that I don’t understand.”

What is Math Anxiety?

The perception of “being good” at math does not fall on a continuum – students either feel relaxed and competent in mathematics, while others feel nervous and stressed anytime they are confronted with math questions. There seems to be no balance – a frightful reality for many!

The distress that some students experience is more than just an attitude about math, it is a real affliction called “math anxiety”. The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) defines math anxiety as an “inconceivable dread of mathematics that can interfere with manipulating numbers and solving mathematical problems within a variety of everyday life and academic situations.”

It’s ironic that a subject seen as the most logical is also one that is ignites so many passionate emotions. Sheila Tobias, author of Overcoming Math Anxiety, describes it as “sudden death [where] everyone knows that I don’t understand”.

What Causes Math Anxiety? 

Math Anxiety

Math anxiety occurs in many individuals regardless of age, race or gender. However, family and peer attitudes may influence students’ attitudes toward mathematics.  Some studies suggest that over 60% of adults have a fear of mathematics. There seems to be consensus that the phobia is made up of 90% psychological foundation (distressing to confidence), and 10% processing function (relating to ability to process math problems).

Where does this leave our students? With hope! When educators focus on classroom strategies that enhance student confidence success in math will naturally follow.

What leads to confidence issues?

  • Language and communication barriers
  • Quality of instruction (lack of differentiation to accommodate differences)
  • Assessment and evaluation methods
  • Difficulty of material
  • Behaviours exhibited by math teachers including:
    • Being hostile
    • Unrealistic expectations
    • Exhibiting gender bias
    • Embarrassing students in front of peers
    • Insisting on only one correct way to complete a problem
    • Modeling behaviours of discomfort with the subject

Joseph D'Addario

How to Manage Math Anxiety?

1. Safe and Inclusive Classroom Environment
  • Create a culture where students feel safe to ask questions and are not embarrassed for giving wrong answers
  • Discourage valuing speed and instead emphasis for processing and reflection
  • Encourage students to understand and make sense of what they are learning rather than just memorizing steps.
2. Attitudes
  • Present a positive attitude to math and display confidence in your abilities
  • Show the value of mathematics and how it contributes to other disciplines and its value in everyday life.
  • Avoid any gender biases– girls and boys have an equal chance of success in math
  • Praise students for illustrating their– not just for getting the right answer
3. Instructional Strategies
  • Model mathematical thinking processes out loud and illustrate how to work through the stages of problem solving and
  • Demonstrate the use of manipulatives and encourage students to use them while doing math
  • Teach math concepts through an inquiry based lens with topics relevant to students’ lives
  • Encourage students to investigate an formulate questions involving mathematical relationships
  • Provide opportunities for students to work collaboratively with other students in small groups
  • Encourage the sharing of mathematical ideas and strategies using strategies like math talks, BANSHO and presentations
  • Provide opportunities for students to talk and write about math.
4. Assessment
  • Tests intrinsically create anxiety, therefore limit timed class tests when possible and reduce the weight given to tests
  • Success in math should be viewed as an ongoing process – assess the process with in class assignments, inquiry based activity, summative tasks and presentations
  • Provide feedback that focuses on a lack of effort rather than a lack of ability so students are always encouraged to work harder

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