Strategies for overcoming math anxiety

For those who struggle with math, there are plenty of strategies for overcoming math anxiety. From practicing mindfulness to asking for extra help when you need it, there’s undoubtedly something that will work for you. In this article, we’ll cover what math anxiety is, what may cause it, and some helpful strategies and tips for kicking your anxiety to the curb before your next math test.

What is Math Anxiety?

The concept of math anxiety was first introduced over 60 years ago as “number anxiety.” Today, math anxiety is roughly defined as the feeling of fear or tension when it comes to manipulating numbers and solving math problems in school and daily life. Math anxiety is more than just disliking the subject of math; rather, it is a fear or anxiety surrounding math that harms a student’s ability to perform math well or at all. 

If you feel intense frustration or nervousness while doing math homework or taking math tests, you may suffer from math anxiety.

Studies and surveys have shown that at least 17% of students experience some form of math anxiety. 30% of that group experience high-intensity math anxiety. When a student experiences math anxiety, they may feel the following things:

  • Fear of failure: While no student wants to fail a test, math anxiety will heighten that, and you might feel overwhelmed by a feeling that you’re going to fail at something before you’ve even started.
  • Feeling helpless or “stupid:” If you suffer from extreme math anxiety, it’s also possible you may start to develop negative feelings about your intelligence. If you’re looking at a math problem and you can’t seem to get it right, that will feed your anxiety and make you feel “less-than.”
  • Feeling physically ill: If math makes you feel shaky, nauseous, or you’re biting your nails, you may have math anxiety.
  • Extreme stress: Stress can actually be helpful at keeping you focused, but too much stress can have a negative affect on your mental health and may lead students to shut down while at school or stop trying altogether.
  • Overall confusion: When looking at a math problem, a person usually has an idea of where to start. However, someone with math anxiety may be lost from the get-go, and this can be frustrating.

What Causes Math Anxiety? Important Associated Factors. 

Does math anxiety cause poor math performance, or does poor math performance cause math anxiety? The answer to this “chicken and the egg” question is still being researched, but it has been established that there are a few factors that are associated with math anxiety. 

  • Teaching/parenting styles: Teachers and parents who display negative attitudes towards math or a student’s ability to learn math can foster math anxiety. If your teacher or parent isn’t open to giving you extra help, or they just don’t teach each concept in a way that works for you, anxiety is more likely to develop. It has been shown that female math teachers and mothers have a particularly high influence on their female students’ motivation and perception of their ability to self-assess.
  • Proneness to anxiety: Students who struggle with anxiety in general are more likely to suffer from math anxiety. Timed tests and standardized test anxiety are also considered significant contributors to math anxiety.
  • Gender: Studies have shown that, when students are elementary-school age, both genders demonstrate the same levels of math anxiety. A gender bias towards math anxiety begins to appear as students grow older; Females in their teen years (15 & 16) exhibit higher amounts of math anxiety compared to their male peers. Even when high school-aged females and males exhibit the same levels of math anxiety, the performance of females on math-related tasks is more impacted by the anxiety than their male peers.

    It’s important to keep in mind that these findings do not indicate that females are worse at math than males, only that they tend to suffer from higher incidences of math anxiety.
  • Social stereotypes: The general stereotype that math is almost certainly one of the foundational causes of math anxiety. Kids pick up on the fact that so many people say math is a complicated subject and when they go into the classroom, they enter with that negative mindset. Importantly, it has been shown that the high levels of math anxiety in females can often be attributed to the social reinforcement of negative stereotypes surrounding the ability of women to perform well in STEM subjects. 

Identifying the cause of an individual’s math anxiety can be difficult, but it may help a student overcome their math anxiety. 

Reappraisal & Strategies for Overcoming Math Anxiety

In their overview of what we’ve learned about math anxiety in the past 60 years, scientists Dowker, Sarkar and Looi of the University of Oxford examine what methods have been found effective in treating math anxiety, specifically with regards to lessening its impact on performance. Most methods studied center around the importance of reappraisal: assessing and reframing an event to reduce negative emotions and associations.

Many of the overarching methods used within these studies, including cognitive tutoring and brain stimulation, are not available to the average person…  but the strategies used within them are. We explore some of these strategies for overcoming math anxiety below. Keep in mind that one approach may work better for you than another, so try a few different strategies to see what works best for you!

1. Try “Expressive Writing”

Before completing your next math assignment, consider engaging in expressive writing. Expressive writing involves writing continuously about a subject, typically one that is emotionally challenging, non-stop for around 10-20 minutes. The writing is not meant to be shared and writers are encouraged to not worry about spelling, grammar, or even sentence construction. 

Both one-time and repeated uses of expressive writing have been shown to help individuals reappraise traumatic experiences, interrogate the need to worry, and stop ruminating on those experiences. In theory, this frees up your working memory and allows you to focus better on the task at hand, such as a math problem or math exam. 

2. Practice Every Day

Another way to reappraise your relationship to a daunting subject is by working to by becoming more familiar with it. When you’re familiar with something, you’re more likely to be comfortable with it (which is the essential argument behind “exposure-based” therapy). Practicing math every day can help you build ease with math concepts and doing mental math in your head.

Practicing math every day may sound boring, there are ways to make it more fun. One of the best ways to familiarize yourself with math in a low-stress manner is to gamify your math practice! Whether that’s through Piqosity’s online gamification feature or a family board game in your closet, exposing yourself to math as much as possible will build your confidence. You may also choose to take an online math course. While some online math courses can be dry and pretty dull, Piqosity offers a exciting options, including our:

These courses are currently available for free with our ISEE, ACT, and SAT practice prep., so if math anxiety is bringing you down as you study for a standardized test, these courses and their lessons may be able to help! 

3. Spend Extra Time on Tricky Concepts

Next on our list of strategies for overcoming math anxiety is spending extra time on tricky concepts. In particular, try giving extra attention to any concept that triggers your anxiety. While this may feel overwhelming or scary, the more you expose yourself to the trigger, the less anxiety-inducing it becomes.

This isn’t to say you have to do this on your own, though. If you find yourself struggling with a particular concept, you may want to look into asking for a tutor. A tutor’s primary job is to guide you through your struggle and help you understand the subject. To find a tutor, talk to your parent or teacher about your options. In some cases, schools will have a tutor on hand or an after-school program for you to attend for help. 

If you’re a tutor with a student who teaches students who struggle with math anxiety, you may find Piqosity’s LMS helpful for staying organized, providing lessons, and assigning problems.

4. Apply Math Problems to Practical Situations

One way to reappraise the role of math is to remove it from the (potentially stress-inducing) classroom setting. Rather than solving a multiplication problem simply on paper, you may have success with creating a story out of the numbers. If you don’t feel like you’re creative enough for that, there are also a variety of real-life tasks that involve the math problems and concepts you’re learning.

  • Money and finances: Humans use money to function in society. It’s what we use to buy groceries, clothes, and other necessities. If you’re struggling with a math problem, try using money (real or fake) to work it out.
  • Finding the best deals: Everybody loves a good deal! Use maths to determine which value is the best before purchasing something you really want.
  • Baking and food prep: If you struggle with fractions, use baking to help you understand it better. In baking, you need to measure out proper amounts and work out what fractions equal others.
  • Gardening and home improvement: Gardening and home improvement projects are another excellent way to work on equal amounts as well as measurements.

5. Master a Few Anxiety Management Techniques 

All of the above strategies for overcoming math anxiety attack the issue preemptively, but what about when you’re experiencing math anxiety directly? The below are some simple but effective strategies for overcoming math anxiety in the moment. 

  • Deep breathing: Deep breaths are your body’s way of naturally calming yourself down. Take a second to close your eyes and take three deep breaths before revisiting the math problem.
  • Take a break: If you can, you should step away and take a break. While doing work at home, you should find something else to do for a little while if you’re feeling frustrated. However, if you’re in the classroom, you may need to speak with your teacher when your anxiety arises.
  • Practice mindfulness: It’s always important to be mindful of what you’re feeling. If your body feels tense, acknowledge that and act accordingly. Try not to ignore your feelings; identifying them can keep them from festering and controlling your actions.

How Can I Help my Child with Math Anxiety?

If you’re a parent and you notice your child is struggling, there are a few things you can do to help them overcome math anxiety.

  • Be aware of your own math biases. If you yourself struggled with math, it can be easy to pass along your anxiety. Do your best to stay upbeat about mathematics and, if possible, educate yourself on how to avoid parent-child transference of math anxiety.
  • Listen. Your child should feel comfortable telling you when something is wrong without worrying about feeling ignored.
  • If possible, get extra help. Sometimes hiring a tutor can help your child overcome math anxiety. Search for reputable tutors with plenty of experience, and try to find a tutor with whom your child can build a strong rapport.
  • Use online resources at home. Sometimes studying math at home can help alleviate some of the pressure your child feels in the classroom. As mentioned previously, Piqosity offers a range of courses as well as ACT, SAT, and ISEE practice tests that can help your child get more confident in math within the comfort of their own home.

How Can Teachers Reduce Math Anxiety?

If you’re a teacher and you notice one or more of your students struggling, consider trying out some of the below tips in your classroom.

  • Be aware of your own math biases. Even math teachers can have negative biases towards math or certain math concepts. You’re only human! If you find yourself talking about how “hard” or “difficult” a concept is, do your best to reframe that discussion in a positive light.
  • Try new teaching strategies. What worked well for one year may not work well with your new batch of students. If you find that a large portion of your class isn’t grasping a concept, it may be time to reevaluate your method. If it’s a smaller group or even a single student, consider offering them some extra help during allotted times.
  • Be intentional when teaching test prep. Take some time to explain why standardized tests are important for future career aspirations; it can help build testing motivation for students. Try to make test prep fun and keep an eye out for any student who exhibits signs of anxiety during this time.

Practice Strategies for Overcoming Math Anxiety with Piqosity

Using the provided strategies for overcoming math anxiety, it is our hope that students will feel empowered and gain the necessary confidence to improve their performance in math. After all, the formulas you learn in math will be the foundational knowledge you’ll use when doing math in daily life and college!

Piqosity is proud to offer materials that can help students overcome math anxiety. Our current courses can be taken alone but also act as the perfect supplement to students studying for the ISEE, ACT, and SAT. Our math courses come complete with 1,500+ personalized practice questions, 50+ lessons, answer explanations, an online whiteboard, and print-at-home options.

We are constantly adding new courses to our offerings, so check back often!

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