Strategies to overcome maths anxiety
Maths anxiety is a situation-specific anxiety which can be described as "an emotion that blocks a person's reasoning ability with a mathematical situation" (Spicer 2004).
Can you relate to the following when you think about maths?
Most people with maths anxiety have had negative or stressful maths experiences such as:
Mathematical situations therefore trigger negative thoughts and memories, a feeling of mathematical helplessness or the ‘fight or flight’ response in the brain. So maths avoidance is common with many students opting out of any subject they think may contain maths or statistics as soon as possible. However, it is becoming increasingly difficult to avoid statistics in particular with most disciplines expecting students to use or understand quantitative analysis.
Maths anxiety is an acquired anxiety which can have a big impact on learning but it is treatable.
A number of strategies can be used to address maths anxiety and enable students to move from a position of mathematical helplessness to mathematically resilient learners. Mathematical resilience is a term used to describe a positive stance towards mathematics where students overcome their barriers to learning, are motivated to persevere with maths and acknowledge that mistakes are part of the learning process (Johnston-Wilder et al, 2014).
The Growth Zone model is useful for understanding different learning experiences and the feelings associated with each. Everyone encounters some maths and statistics in daily life which they are comfortable with; for you this might include working out which is the best offer in the supermarket or thinking about which team might win a fourth-coming fixture based on past performance; you may be comfortable with understanding percentages and charts used in newspapers. ‘Comfort zone’ activities are activities where you feel confident about your abilities and do not require help. However, at university, you are likely to need to move beyond this comfort zone into the ‘Growth zone’ where new learning happens, you may make mistakes and you will need resources and/or help from others. If you are challenged beyond your current level of resilience you may find yourself in the ‘Anxiety zone’, where a feeling of helplessness and fear take over, your thinking becomes impaired, you feel ‘stupid’ and effective learning cannot happen. In order to progress with maths or statistics, you need to move out of that anxiety zone. Ideally you will develop more mathematical resilience and gradually spend more time in your growth zone. Mathematical resilience is the development of confidence, persistence and perseverance (Williams, 2014) to enable learners to stay in the growth zone as long as possible so that more effective learning can take place.
There are four factors for developing mathematical resilience (adapted from Johnston-Wilder, 2015):
Reflect: Think about your previous experiences with maths. How did negative experiences shape the way you feel about maths and your ability? By the time students get to undergraduate level, 93% of students are thought to have had at least one negative or stressful experience with maths (Jackson and Leffingwell, 1999) and 85% are thought to have some form of maths anxiety (Perry, 2004) so talk to your peers about their experiences and feelings.
Challenge unhelpful beliefs: There are many misconceptions and a negative peer culture about maths. It is very common for people to state that they are bad at maths and that they do not have a ‘mathematical brain’. Almost everyone is born with the ability to do some maths and everyone is capable of increasing their mathematical knowledge. Unhelpful beliefs result in people lacking motivation and persistence with maths or statistics and often feeling that there is no point in trying.
Improve self-efficacy: Self-efficacy is the belief that you are capable of successfully performing a task and several studies have shown that high scores of self-efficacy are related to good exam performance. If you believe that you can do it, you are more likely to put the effort in, will be more motivated to do maths and persevere with questions which results in better maths scores. If you find yourself having negative thoughts such as, “I can’t do it”, “I’m terrible at maths”, “I’ll never pass”, etc, recognise that the worries are taking up valuable brain power and stopping you from even reading the question; try to replace them with positive thoughts such as “I can do it if I am properly supported”, and “If I practise, I can pass”.
De-stressing: You will need to recognise when you are in the ‘Anxiety zone’ and develop methods which help you to return to the growth zone. Distraction techniques such as writing down how you feel and leaving the room to do another activity briefly can help. One student has a particular music video she likes to watch to calm her down and in situations where she can’t watch the video e.g. exams, she replays the tune in her head. Breathing techniques where you breathe out for 7 seconds and in for 5 or any techniques suggested for reducing state anxiety generally can help. It can also be helpful to remind yourself of what you can do and return to a question you can do (comfort zone) before attempting something slightly harder again.
Relevance: At school, maths is often taught in an abstract way and students often do not realise the value of maths or how it can be applied in day to day life. Most employers want ‘numerate’ graduates and almost all disciplines expect quantitative research so avoiding maths or statistics will exclude you from career options. Websites such as skillswise-maths use practical applications of maths and examples of how mathematical techniques are used in day to day life. Many students find they understand statistics better when applying techniques to their own data.
Practice: The key strategy is not to put off learning the maths or statistics content, revision for an exam or starting your coursework as no-one becomes good at maths overnight. Maths requires practice in the comfort zone just like a language; if you were studying Russian, you wouldn’t start two days before the exam but maths anxious students who are avoiding studying often do this and then blame stupidity rather than lack of work for poor performance. You need to master the building blocks at the beginning of your course before you can progress to the harder stuff.
Understand rather than memorise: You are less likely to remember how to do something if you don’t understand the process. If you have been shown a calculation in class, go over it again at home and re-write it in steps you understand. This will make it easier to progress to different questions and you will have good notes for revision. It is also important to remember that there may be more than one method for coming to the right answer. Use the method that suits you best.
One-to-one support: Receiving one-to-one support has been shown to have the greatest impact on reducing maths anxiety. The Learning Development Centre here at Aston University offers free individual and group support with any aspect of your maths or statistics questions. In this environment, you are able to ask questions without fear of humiliation and have explanations tailored to your learning style. It also enables feedback on your understanding which is crucial for building your confidence. To get the greatest benefit, start going at the beginning of your course and attend regularly throughout to build up your knowledge slowly.
Peer learning: A common misconception for anxious students is that everyone else in the class can easily do the work, but this is rarely the case. Given 26% of students are thought to have moderate to high levels of maths anxiety, and that maths or statistics are often the most challenging, as well as well as the most fear-inducing, modules students have to study, it’s likely that you are not alone. It is also common for university classes to move at a very fast rate, and many lecturers are unaware that students are being overloaded or unaware of the effects of maths anxiety. Research suggests that collaborative learning, in which groups work together to construct methods for approaching problems and get feedback on their ideas from their peers, increases confidence and reduces anxiety. Setting aside a time each week to work with a couple of friends can help ensure you keep on top of the work. You could meet anywhere but if you are working in the maths support area, there will be a tutor available to answer any questions.
Using online materials: Online learning can be beneficial to anxious students as the fear of looking stupid in front of their peers is removed. Students have also found that reading lecture material in advance helps reduce anxiety in the class and some do this at the maths support centre so they feel fully prepared. If you are not sure about something you learnt in class, use online materials such as videos or worksheets which may explain things in a different way.
Test yourself: Doing unassessed tests/getting feedback will build your confidence slowly, so try the quizzes in each section of this Blackboard module or check your understanding with your peers or asking a maths support tutor. If you have not tested yourself until the main exam you will be very anxious. Low levels of anxiety are normal prior to tests but high anxiety levels have been shown to be the strongest predictor of poor performance in exams.
Have clear notes: It is important to make good organised summary notes for yourself during the term so that you have clear guidance written by you on how to approach different questions.
Past exam papers: Past papers are a really good way of seeing the kind of questions that may be on the exam. The first time you do one, do as much as you can and then go back to your notes to revise anything you are not sure of. Then write up all the questions clearly and correctly as a guide for yourself. Closer to the time of the exam, try the paper again allowing yourself the same amount of time as in the exams and without using notes as a practice run.
Use 1:1 support: Work in the maths support area when revising so you get immediate feedback on your methods and can ask for help whenever you get stuck. This is more efficient than struggling for hours on your own.
Write down your fears: If you are very anxious prior to an maths exam, try writing down how you are feeling or just writing anything for 10 mins as you are waiting to go in. You need to deactivate the anxiety section of your brain so that your working memory can function fully. Anything that distracts you from this rumination will help.
Method marks: You get marks for correct workings in maths exams even if you get the wrong answer so it is really important to show the process used during your calculation as this is where most of the marks go. It doesn’t matter which method you use as long as it’s clear what you have done.
Do the easy questions first in exams: As long as you clearly label the questions, it doesn’t matter what order you do the questions in so do the easy questions first and then go back to questions you are not sure of. This will build your confidence and reduce anxiety which will make you more receptive to more challenging questions. It doesn’t matter if you can’t do every question – the main thing is that you pass and anything above that is a bonus!
Anxiety: Recognise when your anxiety is having an impact on your work and use any techniques you have found to helpful in the past.
Jackson, C. D., & Leffingwell, R. J. (1999). The role of instructors in creating math anxiety in students from kindergarten through college. The Mathematics Teacher, 92(7), 583-586.
Johnston-Wilder, S., Lee, C., Garton, E., Brindley, J. (2014). Developing teaching for mathematical resilience in further education. 7th International Conference of Education, Research and Innovation, ICERI2014, Seville (SPAIN), 17th - 19th of November, 2014.
Perry, A. B. (2004). Decreasing math anxiety in college students. College Student Journal, 38(2), 321-324.
Williams, G. (2014). Optimistic problem-solving activity: enacting confidence, persistence and perseverance. ZDM. 46(3) pp. 407-422.
There are various strategies for helping to reduce anxiety around maths and statistics. Some of the key strategies which could be implemented are summarised below.
Maths anxiety awareness: Becoming self-aware of one’s maths anxiety and the effect that it can have on the brain can assist in its reduction (Uusimaki & Kidman, 2004). Students are not usually aware that maths anxiety is a recognised condition, and making them aware through an introduction in their first lesson or by using the material within this Blackboard module, along with strategies for overcoming maths anxiety will help. If students are aware of their negative beliefs and recognise when their anxiety is affecting their performance, they can start to develop methods for addressing the anxiety and approaches to studying maths more effectively
Relevance: Students often don’t understand why they are studying maths or statistics. Using real-life applied examples rather than pure maths can help. For statistics, project-based learning demonstrating the full process from study design to the reporting of results will help students relate the teaching to projects involving statistics.
Dispel maths myths: Negative attitudes about maths have an impact on student achievement. For example, many believe that only certain people can do maths and these people do not need to work hard to achieve. Students need to believe that they can all do some maths and with effort everyone is capable of improving their maths knowledge.
Self-belief: Self-efficacy is the belief that one is capable of successfully performing a task and several studies have shown that high scores of self-efficacy are related to good exam performance. It is the impact of self-efficacy on motivation, perseverance and willingness to ask for help when needed which leads to higher exam grades though. Encouragement and positive feedback from peers, lecturers and 1:1 tutors increases self-belief.
Reduce the content: What do you really want your students to understand by the end of the course and what do students already know? The pace of many courses is often too fast for students and doesn’t allow enough time on the basics before progressing to harder techniques. Statistics in particular is often seen as an add-on and lecturers are under pressure to cover many techniques in a short space of time. If students are given time to really understand the basics, they can then apply this knowledge to a wider range of topics more easily. For statistics, spending more time on producing and interpreting graphs, which is something most people already have some skills in, before slowly moving onto harder techniques should help increase confidence.
Online learning: Online or distance learning is thought to be beneficial as students don’t have the fear of being called on in class to answer questions or worry about looking stupid in front of peers (Taylor and Mohr, 2001). Anxious students often say that reading lecture notes before the class is helpful so releasing notes a week before the lecture is a simple strategy. Some lecturers are using a flipped classroom approach, in which students study the material online, followed by teaching time concentrating on group activities to cement learning.
Activity-based learning: Students benefit from time for discussion and practice rather than memorisation and rote recitation. Research suggests that collaborative learning where groups work together to construct methods for approaching problems and get feedback on their ideas from their peers, increases understanding. Peer learning within and outside the classroom can increase confidence and reduce anxiety if it is a safe, supportive environment where students all feel as if they are contributing.
One-to-one support: University classes often cover a lot of material in a short space of time and therefore do not provide time for the asking of questions (Finlayson, 2014). Most universities now have Maths Support Centres (MSCs) which provide students with relaxing, non-threatening maths experiences in a supportive environment, and teach at a slower pace, allowing enough time for inquiry and individual development (Woodard, 2004). This is the most effective method for overcoming maths anxiety but an estimated 33% of ‘at-risk’ students do not use MSC support (O’Sullivan et al., 2014). Encourage the use of such a service at regular intervals during the course.
Low-stakes testing: Having only one opportunity to test knowledge at the end of a course (high stakes testing) will have a very negative impact on students with maths anxiety. Untimed, unassessed (low stakes) tests actually reduce maths and test anxiety as well as increasing confidence and online testing allows people to check their progress without the fear of other people finding out their score. Test-retest theory (Juhler, Rech, From, and Brogan, 1998) is when students can take a similar test again which helps students deal with past feelings of failure and provides a safety net. Online tests where the questions stay the same but the numbers change are ideal (as is the case in many of the quizzes within this Blackboard module).
Feedback: Feedback helps to reduce the negative impact of maths anxiety on academic achievement, which is limited in most courses (Núñez-Peña et al., 2015) but feedback in the form of examples can be added to online tests as well as links to online material which gives students alternative explanations to the lecture notes. Immediate feedback reduces the time it takes for students to achieve a desired level of understanding (Anderson, Conrad, and Corbett, 1989) and students can get this crucial feedback on their understanding by attending 1:1 support or working with peers.
Teacher behaviour: Students respond well to enthusiastic teachers who are confident with maths, and that utilise humour or teaching gimmicks, such as using students as the source of data (Schacht & Stewart, 1990). These also help alleviate anxiety.
Writing about anxiety: Writing for 10-15 minutes before a test means that the brain concentrates on writing rather than worrying (Ramirez & Beilock 2011). Encourage anxious students to write about their anxiety just before going into the exam.
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“Well what can I say, after losing sleep, worrying about maths my fear was true. I arrived this morning with complete brain block and anxiety. Nervous, scared and petrified of the maths lesson, even though I had read the class notes. Once the teacher started talking my mind went blank as if she was talking a different language, everything she said went in one ear and out the other… As she asked us to practise questions my mind went on shut down, I started sweating thinking oh my god what if she asks me?”
Whilst maths anxiety itself is difficult to measure, recent research using brain scanners has shown that maths anxiety has measurable effects on the parts of the brain used to understand maths.
Working memory is important for solving mathematical problems. Anxiety causes activation of a different part of the brain which interferes with working memory making maths seem harder than it really is. Maths anxiety eats away at working memory because the brain is too busy worrying about maths instead of doing it (Young, 2012). This means that whilst someone is in a state of anxiety, they will struggle to understand the maths being taught. Those with maths anxiety often believe that they are not clever enough to understand but it is the fear that is interfering with learning.
Bad experiences with maths can lead to the brain associating maths with pain, so the regions of the brain associated with pain-processing can be activated when thinking about maths (Lyons and Beilock, 2012). This only occurs when thinking about the maths, but doesn't occur when the brain is actually doing maths. The brain can also see maths as a threat, so the natural response is to run away from maths in a similar way as one would run from a real physical threat.
Many people have had negative maths learning experiences and encountering maths triggers negative thoughts and memories so an understandable learned behaviour is to avoid maths wherever possible. This could mean avoiding subjects or modules that contain maths (including statistics) or in situations where they have to study maths, avoid studying until the last minute. Poor preparation leads to poor performance which is another negative maths experience, making the student more anxious as it reinforces their view that they are bad at maths. Avoiding maths is becoming increasingly difficult given that most degrees now require some level of mathematics. However, maths anxiety can be overcome within a nurturing environment, by recognising when anxiety is affecting your work, developing strategies for improvement and by accepting that maths requires practice rather than inbuilt ability.
The growth zone model (Johnston-Wilder et al, 2016) can be helpful in explaining the different stages of learning. In the ‘Comfort zone’, students are working independently on material they are familiar with.
However, in order to progress, students must enter the ‘Growth zone’ which can be challenging but rewarding in terms of the increase in knowledge and understanding. In the growth zone, taking risks with appropriate support and making mistakes is part of learning. In the growth zone, it is important to persevere with questions and ask for help if needed but many students with maths anxiety expect failure, lack motivation and move straight to the ‘Anxiety zone’ where very little learning can occur. At this stage, stress levels increase rapidly, mathematical helplessness takes over and the brain activates the ‘fight or flight’ defence mechanism. In the anxiety zone, students may feel tearful or angry and want to remove themselves from the situation as soon as possible. It is important to recognise when you are in this zone and develop strategies for coming out of it e.g. breathing out for 7 and in for 5, listening to a favourite piece of music or writing about your anxiety.
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