Math anxiety is a legitimate psychological and even physiological condition that can occur when encountering certain math problems, calculations, or an overbearing math teacher. The condition has been studied since the 1950s, and according to one study up to 90% of people encounter it at some time during their math career. We interviewed students, teachers, and parents about ways to overcome math anxiety to help students succeed and even find joy and beauty in mathematics. We also researched and synthesized various related academic studies.
Here are the top 5 ways to overcome math anxiety.
Time is on Your Side
Timed tests and pop-quizzes should be limited. Studies show that timed tests and unannounced pop quizzes can place more stress upon students and strain their problem-solving capabilities. Allowing students more time than needed to review and check their work and not focusing on the speed of solving a problem can help a great deal.
Make it Real
Provide students with more real-world, project-based assignments and hands-on math manipulatives. Relating mathematics to real-world, tangible concepts often makes mathematics less abstract for students, which then creates less anxiety. Mathematics that is presented only abstractly can sometimes create stress for students. Grounding mathematics with more familiar topics can also help.
Having students work with partners or in groups to include everyone in the problem solving can alleviate math anxiety. Working with peers is also helpful because students may see the math concepts the same way as their friends and can help one another through discussion of thoughts, feelings, and potential solutions.
Make it Visual
Whenever possible, translating an equation or math concept to a visual concept can create better understanding and in turn alleviate math anxiety. Technologies like Desmos or online whiteboards cater to visual learners. They often have fun tools to make the exploration of a math topic more interactive.
Connect Math to Fun Projects
Math is better when connected to students’ natural interests. Math and Art, Math and Sports, Math and Dance, Math and Movies, Math and Nature, Math and Poetry, Math and Music, Math and Minecraft, etc. are all ways to make certain mathematical topics more appealing and thus less anxiety-ridden for students. It’s also important to give students choices, freedom, and avenues of discovery. This practice is similar to how the Italian educator and medical doctor Maria Montessori promoted certain approaches: away from authoritative top-down, “drill and kill” tactics; instead, toward a process-centered approach, more on collaboration, discovery, self-determination, exploration, and the promotion of natural curiosities and wonder.
Full Disclosure: Donna Maria Iadipaolo is an educator, who began her teaching career in 1990. For her undergraduate studies, Iadipaolo graduated with honors from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Iadipaolo studied engineering, mathematics, education and earned three teaching certificates. She also earned two Master’s Degrees, one in Mathematics Teaching and Learning and also a Master’s of Arts. Iadipaolo recently completed her Education Specialist degree in Curriculum and Instruction. She is an online math teacher and curriculum developer at Clonlara School.