Time for math — again. Your heart starts racing, the knot in your stomach tightens, your palms grow clammy, self-doubt and fear of failure are weights on your shoulders, and a sheet of unanswerable questions stares you down. Math anxiety is real.
You’ve heard this fixed mindset before: I can’t do math, I don’t like math, math is too hard, I’ll never use it in the “real world.”
Students express such dislike and disdain for math, even teachers can start to believe it. However, as an educator, you play a vital role in helping remove the stigma surrounding math anxiety.
Looking for something specific? Jump to:
- The definition of math anxiety
- Math anxiety symptoms
- What causes math anxiety
- How to reduce math anxiety
- A math anxiety self-test (+ free downloadable)
What is math anxiety?
Math anxiety affects people of all ages around the world.
One research article reported that approximately 93% of adult Americans experience some level of math anxiety. Alarmingly, around 17% of Americans suffer from high levels of math anxiety, according to a study in the Journal of Psychoeducational Assessment.
And it’s not simply a matter of feeling nervous. Nervousness is a perfectly sensible reaction to something truly scary.
In their 1972 Journal of Counseling Psychology article, educational psychologist Frank Richardson and counseling psychologist Richard Suinn defined “math anxiety” as:
A feeling of tension and anxiety that interferes with the manipulation of numbers and the solving of mathematical problems in a wide variety of ordinary life and academic situations.
Mark H. Ashcraft, a psychologist at Cleveland State University, defines it “as a feeling of tension, apprehension, or fear that interferes with math performance.”
Math-anxious individuals feel — and believe — they’re utterly incapable of doing anything math-related.
What’s worse, math anxiety might not make sense. For example, even though a student knows how to solve equation x, anxiousness will cause them to freeze despite having the knowledge and knowing there’s no real reason to feel that way.
But, what does math anxiety look like and what’s it rooted in? We answer both questions below.
Math anxiety symptoms and signs
Before you can start preventing it, you must recognize how spot math anxiety.
Understanding the signs and symptoms of math anxiety will help you help your students overcome this issue — together.
Research published in Psychology Research and Behavior Management found students with symptoms of math anxiety can get unusually nervous, clammy hands, an increased heart rate, upset stomach, and lightheadedness.
Feeling of permanency
When math isn’t a student’s strong suit, it’s easy to believe that’s just the way it is, that they’re naturally bad at the subject and always will be.
And the moment he or she buys into that lie, they give up and lose all motivation to improve their skills.
Intense emotional reactions
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Math anxiety manifests not only physiologically and cognitively, but emotionally.
If you notice a student start panicking, grow angry, or get teary-eyed during math class, they could have math anxiety.
This symptom is largely rooted in the misguided assumption that the only way to be good at math is to answer questions quickly and correctly.
Chances are you’ve witnessed this symptom many times over. It’s not so much what it looks like, but what it sounds like:
- I hate math
- I can’t do math
- I’ll never be good at math
However, negative self-talk can occur inside a student’s head and thus be extremely alienating. This unfortunate belief is true regardless of how complex the math lesson.
Due to their lack of confidence, answering math questions properly or doing well on a test is never an option.
As their exposure to math decreases, so does their overall performance. What’s worse, students begin allowing poor grades to define their identity.
This symptom can become what sociologist Robert K. Merton coined as the “self-fulfilling prophecy” which is, “in the beginning, a false definition of the situation evoking a new behavior, which makes the originally false conception come true.”
You’ll notice students with math anxiety try to avoid going to math class on pop quiz or test days.
Throughout their school career, they’ll likely choose the path of least resistance when it comes to math. What does that look like? Remedial math courses or worse, no math at all.
The most unfortunate and pervasive tendency amongst people with high math anxiety, says Ashcraft, is avoidance.
They take fewer elective math courses, both in high school and in college, than people with low math anxiety. And when they take math, they receive lower grades. Highly math-anxious people also espouse negative attitudes toward math, and hold negative self-perceptions about their math abilities.
Lack of response
In her 2010 book Learning to Love Math, California-based neurologist and former middle school teacher, Dr. Judy Willis, explains how anxiety can cut off the working memory we need to learn and solve problems — literally.
Ever wonder how you’re able to remember and think about multiple things at once? That’s part of the human memory system we call working memory.
Imagine a student has math anxiety and you read a math question aloud to the class.
Instead of thinking of the numbers and steps involved to solve the problem, researchers suggest that student’s feeling of anxiety uses up all their working memory.
A functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) study published in Psychological Science analyzed brain activity in 46 seven- to nine-year-olds with low or high math anxiety.
Each child completed addition and subtraction runs in the MRI scanner, answering:
- Complex arithmetic problems
- Simple arithmetic problems
- Number identification
- Passive fixation
Compared to children with low math anxiety, researchers found that those with high math anxiety had a more active amygdala — part of the brain involved with processing negative emotions and fearful stimuli.
Brain scans in highly math-anxious kids also revealed that parts in the brain involved in mathematical processing and working memory — dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and intraparietal — were less active.
Major causes of math anxiety
Putting a finger on a single cause of math anxiety is near impossible. From a very young age, there are many factors that can negatively influence children’s perspective of math.
Take a moment to think about your direct or indirect experience with math anxiety, what triggered it, and when.
Maybe students laughed after you incorrectly answered a question; maybe your teacher failed to teach it effectively; maybe it was your parents’ unsavory attitude toward math; maybe it manifested as early as kindergarten or later in college.
Fear of being wrong
Growing up, little compares to the terrible feeling of public embarrassment. If you or your students scold or laugh at someone who gets an answer wrong, it can trigger or make their math anxiety worse.
Jo Boaler, author and professor of mathematics at Stanford University, highlights the fact research shows “that early anxiety snowballs, leading to math difficulties and avoidance that only get worse as children get older.”
Parents’ negative predispositions
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An NPR article titled “How to Make Sure Your Math Anxiety Doesn’t Make Your Kids Hate Math” pegged parents’ feelings about math as one reason for kids’ math anxiety.
Sian Beilock, a cognitive scientist and president of Barnard College, paints an all-too-familiar picture: “A parent might say, ‘oh I’m not a math person, it’s okay if you’re not good at math either.’ It can send a signal to kids about whether they can succeed.”
Moreover, children may view their parents as being successful without having a mathematics background, thus reinforcing the idea they don’t actually need math.
There are many ways teachers can influence a child’s math experience. Like parents, if you’re afraid of or don’t value the subject, students will likely share that sentiment.
When students don’t understand certain concepts, they need a teacher who’s willing to help them understand — and possibly change teaching strategies.
In her senior thesis for Liberty University, “Math Anxiety: Causes, Effects, and Preventative Measures”, Megan Smith found:
Giving written work every day, insisting there is only one correct way to complete a problem, and assigning mathematics problems as punishment for misbehavior can cause students to dislike mathematics.
Recognizing an ever-increasing teacher math anxiety epidemic, Daniel Ansari, the principal investigator for the Numerical Cognition Laboratory at the University of Western Ontario, “[thinks] a lot of people go into elementary teaching because they don’t want to teach high school math or science.”
Pressure of timed tests (and poor test grades)
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You may be one of the teachers assigning fewer timed math assessments. Students aren’t necessarily incapable of completing timed tests successfully.
However, timed tests are not the only way to improve math fluency and increase student success. It’s critical, according to Boaler, to address “the ways in which it transforms children’s brains, leading to an inevitable path of math anxiety and low math achievement.”
Inability, or unwillingness, to complete assignments
Teachers who emphasize memorization over understanding can do many students a disservice.
Without working through math problems and understanding the why behind them, students will have a hard time seeing their value.
“This along with being unprepared greatly contributes to a child’s increased level of math anxiety,” says Sarah Rossnan, a Palm Beach County mathematics instructor.
While math anxiety can cause students to believe they’re unable to complete assignments, the subsequent unwillingness to try is arguably more harmful to their academic and real-world success.
12 tips for overcoming math anxiety
If your child or student is exhibiting symptoms of math anxiety, these research-backed strategies should help them!
1. Prodigy Game
Prodigy is a free, curriculum-aligned math game used by more than a million teachers and 50 million students around the world. It offers content from every major math topic and covers 1st to 8th grade.
Crystal Babb is a 4th grade teacher at Odessa Upper Elementary in Missouri. Using Prodigy, she’s seen it effectively help students overcome math anxiety symptoms.
Here’s one of those stories:
P has spent a large part of his school career believing that he’s “stupid” and “just can’t do math.” He’s seen his siblings struggle in school and has come to believe that it’s just the way his family is… a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Since starting Prodigy, it’s like he’s a different person academically. He plays at home more than any of my other students. He is giving noticeable effort when we practice in class because he feels more confident.
2. Use mixed-ability grouping
This method refers to grouping together peers who have different abilities.
Grouping students according to their abilities — i.e., high with high and low with low — can seriously disadvantage students in lower groups.
Not only do they already struggle with math, but this form of exclusivity reinforces their negative perception of math and limits exposure to curriculum.
In fact, mixed-ability grouping encouraged students with higher math abilities to think more deeply about alternative solutions to help those in “bottom” groups to understand.
Teachers found that children in mixed-ability groups had greater understanding of their learning, were better able to recognize achievement and progress, and knew what they had to do to improve.
Many of those who had previously been in ‘bottom’ groups talked to us about how their confidence in and enjoyment of mathematics had increased since working in flexible, mixed-ability groups.
3. Make math fun
Teachers are increasingly using math games for kids to boost engagement. What’s more, they’re able to make math fun and motivate students to develop skills and fact fluency.
According to Educause, gameful learning can “reinforce the fact that failure is neither a setback nor an outcome but rather an indication that more work is needed to master the skill or knowledge at hand.”
Wondering how to make math fun? Check out our five steps to implementing game-based learning in the classroom!
4. Positive reinforcement
Never underestimate the impact a few words of encouragement can have on a child.
A study in the Journal of Emerging Investigators explored the effects positive and negative reinforcement had on mathematical performance for students in 6th grade.
After receiving a negative, positive, or neutral form of reinforcement, students had to do mental math to calculate fraction problems while holding a heart rate monitor.
Overall, the results suggest reinforcement — positive or negative — may yield higher grades.
However, researchers found that students who received positive reinforcement had significantly lower heart rates when calculating fractions.
So, instead of punishments, parents and teachers may want to motivate kids through reward to help improve student learning and academic success.
For example, teachers: If a student is struggling to solve an equation, ensure that’s it’s all right and proceed to help walk them through the steps. Alternatively, you could have them partner with another student to solve it together.
And parents: Instead of saying, “If you don’t finish your math work, you won’t get _______,” frame it differently. Try “If you finish your homework, you can do/get _______.”
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In another much larger study of 438 children across 29 public and private schools, researchers tested their math ability and anxiety. They also gave parents a questionnaire about math anxiety and how often they help their kids with homework.
Interestingly, results revealed:
When parents are more math anxious, their children learn significantly less math over the school year and have more math anxiety by the school year’s end — but only if math-anxious parents report providing frequent help with math homework.
Of course, parents aren’t necessarily trying to sabotage their kids’ success in math or any other subject for that matter.
“But we have to ensure their input is productive,” says Beilock, “They need to have an awareness of their own math anxiety and that what you say is important.”
5. Read math books
In a 2018 study, Beilock and her team explored whether math-anxious parents who used an app called Bedtime Math would affect their 1st grade children’s math potential.
When parents finished stories, their kids would answer content questions, simple addition, or math word problems.
After one year of reading math-related stories before bed, Beilock found “that interventions involving parents and children together can have powerful lasting effects on children’s academic achievements.”
6. Get a tutor
Researchers have also found that one-on-one tutoring sessions can help remedy highly math-anxious kids.
An eight-week study involved 46 seven- to nine-year-olds who participated in 40 to 50-minutes of math tutoring per week. Before and after their sessions, students got an MRI scan.
In addition to reducing math anxiety scores, “children with greater tutoring-associated decreases in their amygdala activity showed higher reductions in mathematics anxiety.”
7. Anxiety reappraisal
The most significant people in a child’s life are parents and teachers, which means they have the biggest influence on their upbringing.
If either regularly express negative attitudes about math, children can grow up believing math ability is innate and success is tied to giftedness.
A simple solution for math anxiety may lie in reframing it — using three words.
If you’re staring an anxious scenario in the face, anxiety reappraisal suggests reframing your immediate response. That is, instead of saying “I am nervous,” say something like “I am excited” or “I can’t wait.”
But, wait… that sounds counterintuitive! And you’re right, but science says it works.
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Alison Brooks, a professor at Harvard Business School published a study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology exploring the phenomenon of anxiety reappraisal.
Brooks ran a few tests: doing karaoke in front of strangers, a hypothetical 30-minute keynote speech scenario, and completing a difficult math task.
Before they started, she had participants say one of three things before performing completing their tasks:
- “I am anxious”
- “I am excited”
People who reappraised anxiety as excitement sang better, spoke longer and more persuasively, and outperformed others on the math test.
Surprisingly, when participants adopted what Brooks calls an “opportunity mindset” as opposed to a “threat mindset,” neither heart rates nor anxiety levels decreased.
Though anxiety levels remained unchanged, it’s fascinating that a minor change of attitude resulted in significantly more positive performances.
8. Encourage understanding not memorization
In Boaler’s op-ed for The Hechinger Report, she wrote: “we continue to value the faster memorizers over those who think slowly, deeply and creatively — the students we need for our scientific and technological future.
2012 PISA data from 13 million students revealed that the lowest-achieving ones were those who used memorization strategies.
Memorization is valuable, but pushing it as the only way to do is problematic. This growth-stunting mindset will eventually “[produce] a generation of students who are procedurally competent but cannot think their way out of a box.”
As Boaler, who suffered a childhood accident that harmed her memory, said: “I went into math because there’s nothing to memorize.”
The sooner you encourage understanding as opposed to memorization, the sooner students will develop number sense and mental math skills.
9. Take time to answer questions
Math anxiety occurs, in part, because students feel the need to answer immediately.
Robert J. Stahl, a professor in the Division of Curriculum and Instruction at Arizona State University, highlighted that before teachers move on or allow students to respond, the average time they wait is an alarming 0.7 to 1.4 seconds after asking a question.
Considering that students usually take up to 10 seconds to process questions and formulate answers, teachers who offer minimal response time are failing to foster an environment for critical thinking and success.
In 1972, Mary Budd Rowe, an American science educator and education researcher, published five years of research about “wait-time.”
Rowe found that when you give students at least three seconds of undisturbed wait-time, there are numerous positive outcomes.
Benefits for students:
- Fewer “I don’t know” answers
- More long and correct answers
- Increase of academic achievement test scores
- More students volunteered to answer and answered appropriately
Benefits for teachers:
- Ask their class more varied and flexible questions
- Questions decreased in quantity and increased in quality
- Ask follow-up questions that encourage and foster higher-level understanding
10. Get stuck and then unstuck
Feeling stuck, especially knee deep in a math problem, can elicit feelings of helplessness, frustration, and other symptoms of math anxiety.
Though humorous, the video below isn’t unlike how students with math anxiety feel at times. It’s easy to start screaming for help before trying to think of possible solutions.
Kate Mills, who taught 4th grade and is now a literacy interventionist in New Jersey, would give her students a problem she knows will make them feel stuck.
But, before they start, she instructs them to “work through it, being mindful of how you’re getting yourselves unstuck.”
While students try to get unstuck, Mills asks them questions to help them identify their processes. For example:
- What was your first step?
- What are you doing now?
- What will you try next?
- How’d you get unstuck?
As a teacher, you can create charts comprised of effective strategies they’re discovering — and using — to move from stuck to unstuck.
Not only is it a great reminder for students, but a source of encouragement for them the next time they feel like those people on the escalator.
11. Practice mindfulness
In 2013, cognitive psychologist Tad T. Brunyé published a study in Learning and Individual Differences focusing, in part, on how breathing affected math anxiety.
When highly math-anxious students practiced mindful breathing practices, they reported feeling much calmer and performing better on timed tests.
Brunyé posits this mindfulness technique may help students move past distractions that would otherwise occupy working memory.
12. Express yourself
We got the idea from a math chat on Twitter, and I loved it! Give students 5 minutes no pencil to discuss the assessment before they take it.Eased test anxiety&walking around hearing the student discussion was so valuable. What a great idea! Let me know how it goes @CoppockMrs pic.twitter.com/t1APhbFVF5
— Colleen Johansen (@mathteachmrsj) February 27, 2019
You might be wondering what a little journaling session has to do with math. Well, Beilock and developmental and cognitive psychologist, Gerardo Ramirez, asked students to jot down their thoughts and feelings shortly before writing an exam.
In comparison to students they didn’t ask to write anything, students who did scored higher on their exams.
The study results published in Science suggest this writing exercise can help students reflect on and regulate their emotions and, as a result, reduce math anxiety.
Math anxiety self-test
Do you have math anxiety? Although this is not a definitive self-test, it can give you an idea of how your students feel about math at the beginning of the year.
Depending on their scores, you may reconsider your teaching strategies, the types of formative or summative assessments you’ll use, and so on.
Here’s a series of 10 questions adapted from Ellen Freedman’s math anxiety questionnaire:
1 = Disagree, 5 = Agree
- Cringe when you have to go to math class? 1 2 3 4 5
- Get uneasy about going to the board in a math class? 1 2 3 4 5
- Understand math now, but worry that it will get really difficult? 1 2 3 4 5
- Tend to zone out in math class? 1 2 3 4 5
- Fear math tests more than any other kind? 1 2 3 4 5
- Know how to study for math tests? 1 2 3 4 5
- Understand math in class, but seem to forget it all when you get home? 1 2 3 4 5
- Afraid to ask questions in math class? 1 2 3 4 5
- Worried about being called on in math class? 1 2 3 4 5
- Afraid you won’t be able to keep up with the rest of the class? 1 2 3 4 5
How high is your math anxiety?
Add up the numbers and check your students’ scores.
- 10-19 — You probably love math
- 20-29 — You may have math anxiety
- 30-39 — Math clearly makes you uneasy
- 40-50 — You have math anxiety
Do you want this math anxiety self-test for your children or students? Download our free math anxiety questionnaire.
Verdict on math anxiety : “Mathematics education is in crisis”
A bold statement Boaler made on July 3, 2012. In her eye-opening commentary for Education Week, she continued:
A third of all schoolchildren end up in remedial math courses, and the level of interest in the subject is at an all-time low. This is a result, in part, of schools in the United States heading down a fast-moving track in which the purpose of math has been reduced to the ranking of children and their schools.
Math has become a performance subject. Children of all ages are more likely to tell you that the reason for learning math is to show whether they “get it” instead of whether they appreciate the beauty of the subject or the way it piques their interest.
The damage starts early in this country, with school districts requiring young children to take timed math tests from the age of five. This is despite research that has shown that timed tests are the direct cause of the early onset of math anxiety.
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Math anxiety is something that directly affects students well into adulthood. Schools continue to struggle with widespread underachievement — a reality that has both immediate and long-term consequences.
However, using the research-backed tips for overcoming math anxiety can help. Start using them and see how your students move from math anxiety to math excitement.
As Beilock pointed out, “No one walks around bragging that they can’t read, but it’s perfectly socially acceptable to say you don’t like math.”
So, let’s change that!