Math Anxiety

It hurts teachers to see students struggle with Math. Clearly, those students come into the classroom anticipating to go through an hour of discomfort or outright stress.

Those clear verbal explanations, colorful graphs, and easy to understand formulas or diagrams that work for the majority of students go over their head.

Starting the lesson with the mindset that it will be another ‘failure’ becomes a self fulfilling prophesy.

Heartfelt encouragements are met with disbelief.

Obviously, you are trying to break the downward spiral of Math Anxiety. Emphasize a positive attitude and minimize student embarrassment.

Unfortunately, just as in reading, students come to the classroom with different independent, instructional and frustration levels in math. Here are some suggestions for differentiation that might be helpful:

  • Math teachers need readily available tools to evaluate the level and possible gaps for the individual student and time to do this.
  • Knowing your students’ abstraction level and learning style allows you to choose or design assignments to fit the ‘rule of thumb’: every five questions can have one hard one, or four compliments can balance one comment/correction.
  • Temporarily going back to a level just below where the student is really proficient has worked wonders. It gives the student the feeling that he can do math, it’s even easy!
  • Textbooks that have built in differentiation in content and workload are time efficient and can help your students regain their confidence and start trying again.
  • To explain a new concept or guide a student through a given problem, it can be amazingly effective to backtrack one or more levels in the developmental sequence of mathematical abstraction:
  1. providing stories about numbers and concepts and asking the student to tell about it
  2. providing concrete manipulatives to represent the problem and modeling or having the student ‘act out’ the problem
  3. providing pictorial representations and having the student make drawings
  4. providing abstract representations and having the student write numerical answers to problems
  • The golden rule still applies that it is best to minimize the time between an error and a correction or to explain every mistake as quickly as possible to prevent that the misconception can take root. For older students providing the answers (not the procedure) to homework can be helpful. Even better than giving the explanation is having the student explain to you why he thinks it’s not the right answer and how he can correct it. Ask the student to write down what went wrong next to the problem and what he can do to prevent it.
  • Working in pairs or small groups gives you the option to team up a student who needs help with a more advanced student.
  • Allowing more time and quiz or test corrections for half or a third of the regular credit is another way to focus on working towards improvement instead of being stuck with a failing grade. Recent research suggests that timed tests are related to the early development of Math Anxiety. Ref: Jo Boaler in Teaching Children Mathematics, NCTM, Vol 20, #8, 469-74, April 2014.
  • Keeping a record of error corrections in her/his math journal that also highlights accomplishments is highly effective to boost self confidence in math.
  • Making a graph of personal progress is very motivating and eliminates the negative comparison with other students in the class.
  • When personal tutoring is not an option, consider online math tutoring programs, they can be very economical and beneficial.

Teaching is often a time balancing act and it is obvious that this approach takes a lot of extra time from both teacher and student, but you can expect great leaps and to have happy faces in your classroom.