maths anxiety
For kids who suffer from Maths anxiety, teachers play an important role in helping them overcome it. Source: Shutterstock

Struggling with feelings of anxiety and worry when taking a Math test or doing Math homework is something many adults and children can relate to.

What they’re probably unaware of is that there’s actually a term for it: Maths Anxiety.

It’s such a common problem that the Maths Anxiety Trust was set up to spread awareness about it. Most of us simply chalk it up to ‘not being good’ at the subject, but it isn’t necessarily the case- it could be the anxiety that’s holding us back.

According to a recent article in The Guardian, “A poll for the trust, conducted last year by Ipsos Mori, found more than a third of 15- to 24- year-olds feel anxious when shown a maths problem. The same applies to one in five British adults.”

“Teachers must also help pupils overcome difficulties and never allow them to feel like they are no good at the subject. It’s that feeling of failure that can lead to maths anxiety and young people dropping the subject and, in so doing, limiting their future career prospects in the STEM industries.”

Celia Hoyles, professor of mathematics education at University College London (UCL), who works with the trust, told The Guardian, “With Maths, there’s a right or a wrong answer and that’s why people can feel so anxious – they’re scared of looking foolish.”

“It’s why people end up thinking they’re not good at maths, which means we get fewer people studying it after GCSE.”.

So how can teachers help students overcome these feelings of anxiety? Here are some ways to try.

Build their confidence

When a student feels more confident about their math abilities, they can overcome feelings of anxiety. According to Ewart Newton of JUMP Math, “Previous negative experiences with the subject can lead to a negative and defeatist attitude. To overcome this, you should provide students with regular confidence-building exercises that look challenging but enable all students to do well.

“This boost in confidence and self-efficacy can decrease anxiety and fear, as students feel more and more capable and motivated.”

One confidence-building strategy that has worked for Maths instructor Howie Hua is ‘Test Talk’, created by himself and his late co-teacher Diana Herrington, which has helped his students gain confidence when taking a Maths test.

He wrote on Edutopia, “Four years ago, Diana and I decided to dedicate the first five minutes of the testing period to having our students look over the test and talk about strategies to solve the problems. We would have them put their pencils on the ground so they could focus on having a conversation.”

“On test days, I walk around the classroom listening to pre-test conversations, and they’re some of the best mathematical conversations I’ve ever heard. It’s great to hear students collaborate and problem-solve, all while using mathematical vocabulary.”

By talking with others, the students found they felt better about taking the test. As one student said, “I’m not sure if it’s just me, but I’ve had my fair share of experiences where I question absolutely everything I know in the few minutes before a test.

“The five-minute Test Talk gives me an opportunity to double- or triple-check my uncertainties with my classmates to give me more confidence and to settle my nerves before taking a test. I don’t see it as an opportunity to try and learn something brand-new right before the test, but more as a chance to briefly collaborate about what I’ve already studied.”

Different teaching methods

Is there a better way to teach Maths? There just might be several. Since its such a broad subject that’s applicable in our everyday lives, perhaps educators should be more creative in the way it’s being taught.

For example, STEAM education – which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Maths and is becoming adopted in more and more schools – uses a critical thinking approach which can help students look at math concepts in a different way.

According to STEAMCraftEdu, “The lion’s share of issues tends to arise when learners fail to understand and master concepts properly before moving to more advanced concepts, and thus carrying over their skills gap.

“Compounding mistakes and growing skills gaps create frustration, anxiety and a loss of confidence, which leads to more serious problems such as complete lack of focus, cheating and experiencing “math blocks”.

“Some of the most effective strategies being used to improve Math teaching outcomes are aligned with the STEAM Education methodologies. These include framing a math problem in a multidisciplinary context, something real world that children can relate to.

“Another is to encourage learners to work in groups to solve the problem, allowing students to propose one or two solutions themselves to solve the challenge, rather than being too directive by giving them the exact process or formula to follow as generally is the case in traditional Math teaching.

“This helps increase engagement and promote deeper thinking and problem solving, and encourages other important soft skills key to math mastery, like persistence.”

Liked this? Then you’ll love…

New evidence reveals the best way to motivate students in maths

Creative ways to make math fun for K12 learners