How to quell math fears (it’s easier than you think)

How to quell math fears (it’s easier than you think) - TLG-IMG-02042020

I’ve never been good at math. Which is maybe how I wound up studying English after high school and, several years later, joining NWEA as managing editor of Teach. Learn. Grow.

My math battle wounds, long neglected, begged for my attention soon after coming on board when I learned the right term to describe what had happened to me: “knowledge gap.” And as I heard more about MAP® Accelerator™, I began to suspect that maybe my math phobia could’ve been prevented if my teachers had been able to identify my gaps and if I’d been able to practice weaker skills until I caught up.

I recently sat down with Mary Resanovich, a senior content specialist who plays a part in creating the math questions students see in MAP® Growth™, to understand more about how kids learn math—and how math panic attacks might be prevented. Her answers have been edited for length and clarity.

I suspect my experience with math isn’t all that unique. Is there research that tells us how common it is for kids in the US to have a hard time with math and at what age those troubles usually begin?

You’re right. Sadly, your experience is not unique. One study found that about 93% of US adults express some level of math anxiety, with some 17% reporting high levels of anxiety.

[M]ath is something that can be improved with practice and persistence and is not the result of innate ability.”

While negative feelings about math tend to increase with age and are most common in middle and high school, studies have shown that students as young as 6 can experience math anxiety! This is alarming because, in addition to causing emotional and physical responses, math anxiety can impact working memory, making it harder for students to learn, which in turn feeds more anxiety.

Are struggles more common for girls or for children of underrepresented groups?

That same study I mentioned earlier noted that math anxiety is more prevalent among girls, especially in middle and high school. Interestingly, although there is not a significant gender gap in actual math performance, studies do indicate that math anxiety has a greater impact on girls’ performance than boys, both in elementary school and when they reach middle school. This is likely related to societal stereotypes around math ability and gender.

While students of color are impacted by stereotypes as well, they are also more likely to encounter underfunded schools, less experienced math teachers, and less adequate preschools. Data released in 2015 by the US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights showed that only 65% of African American and only 72% of Latino students passed Algebra 1 compared to 85% of white students. All of this contributes to a race and gender gap in STEM fields.

Do children outside the US follow similar patterns of difficulty with math? If so, why do think that is?

While levels of math anxiety differ from country to country, it is not a US phenomenon. Data from the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) show that almost two-thirds of 15–16 year-olds from the 34 OECD countries often worry about the difficulty of their math classes.

[I]n addition to causing emotional and physical responses, math anxiety can impact working memory, making it harder for students to learn, which in turn feeds more anxiety.”

Generally, countries that performed the lowest on the PISA mathematics test reported the highest levels of math anxiety and vice versa, with an interesting exception: High performing countries like Korea, China, Singapore, and Japan also report high math anxiety. This is likely due to cultural norms around test performance and differences in curricula and educational approaches.

Do you have any tips for teachers of struggling math students?

Here are a few ways teachers can support healthy attitudes about math:

  • Create a classroom that values “How did you approach this?” over “Did you get it right?” Encourage ideation, collaboration, risk taking, embracing mistakes, and exploring multiple approaches. In a blog post for the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, teacher Adam Sarli suggests one way to deemphasize the worry over “getting it right” is to give students both the problem and the answer and then discuss different ways to get to the answer. Teacher Jancey Clark gives many great suggestions on transforming the culture of math in her three-part blog series
  • Help students fill knowledge gaps. Math anxiety feeds on itself. Students lacking conceptual understanding will likely do poorly on more complex tasks. This triggers anxiety, leading students to invest less time and effort in math, resulting in lower performance and so on. A recent study also showed that intensive one-on-one tutoring helped decrease stress in third graders with high levels of math anxiety. Remediating specific gaps with tools like MAP® Accelerator™ can improve a student’s view of their mathematical capabilities and allow them to more confidently interact with complex mathematical ideas
  • Project a positive attitude toward math. This is particularly important for female elementary school teachers, as girls can pick up on any math anxiety their role models exhibit. Check out my previous blog post, “5 ways to support girls in STEM,” for suggestions and resources to help build confidence in mathematics in all students

What about tips for families?

Parents and caregivers play a huge role in how students view mathematics. Here are some ways to help your child develop a positive view of math.

  • Be conscious of how you talk about math. Avoid describing math as hard or sharing your own math traumas. Reinforce that math is something that can be improved with practice and persistence and is not the result of innate ability
  • Make your home a math-rich environment. Talk through doubling a recipe while you cook with your child. Doing a DIY project? Ask your child to help you measure. Talk about price comparisons, coupons, and sales tax at the store. Play number games on long car trips. Provide your child with toys like blocks, puzzles, tangrams, and building kits; these can improve spatial reasoning, which is linked to success in math. Include math picture books in your bedtime routine
  • Focus on understanding over grades. If your child comes home with a low grade on a test or project, don’t get fixated on the score. Instead, encourage them to talk about what they understand and what concepts they are still developing

Do you have tips for high schoolers who may be considering math-heavy studies in college but worry they don’t have the skills?

Lean in! Students with math anxiety tend to take fewer math classes, which only compounds the issue. Throw away the idea that you are “not a math person” and find opportunities to build your skills and confidence. Just like reading, playing piano, or learning a sport, improving math skills takes time and persistence.

Go to extra help sessions, seek out peer tutors, and see if your library or community center offers homework help. Ask your teacher what skills you need to work on and what apps or websites can help. Ask them to recommend a math mentor. If tests make you anxious, spend 5–10 minutes before the test writing about your anxiety. Expressing your fears this way may help get them out of your head and let you focus on the task. The main thing is to recognize your anxiety and stop avoiding the source. Remember, everyone is capable of being successful in math!

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