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"Mathematics" can be a polarizing word evoking numerous personal reactions at its mere mention. There are those who have facility with it and a positive self-image in relation to it, those who fear it and have a negative self-image in relation to it, to more neutral reactions in between. In my current experience working with preservice elementary teachers, more often than not, the subject of mathematics evokes feeling of anxiety; as exemplified in excerpts below from mathematics autobiographies my undergraduate and graduate teacher candidates write at the start of each semester in my elementary mathematics methods courses so that I can understand how mathematics has impacted them in their formative years.
My earliest recollection of math was one weeknight when I was in fourth grade. I was struggling with my math homework (unfortunately I cannot remember what the content was) and became so frustrated that I burst into tears. I remember a tremendous feeling of panic, fear and frustration at not being able to complete the assignment for the next day. My panic was so severe that I begged my mother to allow me to stay home from school the next day. I just could not face it...As an adult my anxiety-surrounding math did not wane, with the exception that I was required to use those skills much less. I was pretty embarrassed when I bought my first car and was placed in a terrifying situation of computing the math in my head in public. I finally gave up waiting tables when I found the job to be too overwhelming. I hate to say it, but my mother’s words often ring in my head…”you know, you really should never have a job where you work with money. It’s just not your thing.”
I have always seemed to struggle with math. From the time I was in kindergarten math has always seemed like a foreign language to me. It was always a subject that inflicted anxiety and frustration. It seemed like the only subject that I truly couldn’t ever fully comprehend. Whenever I seemed to finally understand a concept something new was quickly added that made it confusing and discouraging. Once again what little confidence I had gained I quickly lost.
To me, the word “math” conjures up many feelings; anxiety, fear, failure and envy. During my formative years in school, I often heard teachers and adults describe math as a “boys subject,” and often declared that boys are better at math than girls.
As my 3rd grade year went on, my fear of math increased and I began to feel like I was never going to be able to be as good as my classmates or meet the expectations of my teacher and her ‘minute math’ worksheets. My fears increased to the point where one day I decided to fake a headache when I knew the math lesson was coming up. To my surprise, it worked and my teacher allowed me to leave and go to the nurse and I had conveniently missed the ‘minute math’ session by the time I returned to class an hour later. From that day on, I began a bad habit of asking to go to the nurse and faking some type of illness or ailment a few times a week and always right before the math lesson. Though this is not something I am proud of today, it clearly illustrates how strongly I disliked math and how in 3rd grade my definition of math was that it was something dreadful and to be avoided at all costs.
Mathematics anxiety is very real and studies show that it can begin at an early age in elementary school due to factors such as social influences and cognitive predispositions (Maloney & Beilock, 2012). This finding is supported in the mathematics autobiographies I have analyzed over the past several years as preservice teachers generally can pinpoint times in their lives when they either began to love or fear mathematics, most often dating back to elementary school. It seems to be socially acceptable to fear or be anxious of mathematics (Beilock & Willingham, 2014) and even a bonding experience for some who are mathematics phobic and find kindred spirits in others who are the same. However, this seemingly easy acceptance can perpetuate a cycle of negative mathematics affect especially with teachers who could pass on their anxiety to their students. Therefore, it is important to examine the roots of mathematics anxiety and not to dismiss them. High levels of mathematics anxiety can result in poor academic progress and lead to avoidance of mathematics which can potentially shut people out of certain careers (Arem, 2010). Consequently, mathematics anxiety is a critical issue to explore because understanding more about it can potentially maximize a student's academic potential and open doors which might otherwise have been closed. This article explores mathematics anxiety and some strategies teachers can employ in their classrooms to ameliorate it.
Mathematics Anxiety Characteristics
Mathematics anxiety is not limited to a particular group of individuals. However, there are some common characteristics of those with mathematics anxiety. People who have mathematics anxiety feel tension, apprehension, and fear of situations involving mathematics (Beilock & Willingham, 2014). Symptoms of mathematics anxiety include "negative emotional, mental, and/or physical reactions to mathematical thought processes and problem solving caused by discomforting or unrewarding life experiences with math" (Arem, 2010, p. 1). Mathematics anxiety signifies more than not being good at mathematics or someone's actual mathematics ability; it implies that someone would be better at mathematics if he/she were not so anxious (Beilock & Willingham, 2014).
Origins of Mathematics Anxiety
Origins of mathematics anxiety are varied. Life experiences certainly shape a student's mathematics anxiety as mathematics autobiographies can reveal. One factor is students' mathematics abilities at the start of elementary school (Beilock & Willingham, 2014). Generally, however, mathematics anxiety does not come from the mathematics itself but from the way it has been presented in schools. Although there are multiple causes of mathematics anxiety many stem from a student's social environment, notably previous school experiences. Some of these include the fear of making mistakes if asked to show solutions to a group of students or in front of the whole class, pressure to get one exact right answer, word problems, self-defeating talk, or giving up too easily (Tobias, 1993). Others stem from parental expectations, social pressures, or poor teaching methods (Arem, 2010). Furthermore, anxious teachers can produce anxious students (Geist, 2010). Cues from parents, teachers, peers, and the media that mathematics is worthy of anxiety are additional factors shaping a student's relationship with mathematics (Beilock & Willingham, 2014).
Implications of Mathematics Anxiety
Mathematics anxiety can affect long-term and working memory systems (Arem, 2010; Beilock & Willingham, 2014; Maloney & Beilock, 2012;). Working memory is a short-term system responsible for integrating new information with old memories and processing the newly integrated information relevant to the task at hand for use in problem solving, reasoning, comprehension, and decision-making (Arem, 2010). Anxious thoughts can consume valuable working memory space (Ashcraft, 2002).
Anxiety about doing mathematics is an impediment to mathematics achievement over someone's actual math ability (Ashcraft, 2002; Maloney & Beilock, 2012).Teachers and students with high mathematics anxiety regardless of their actual ability see themselves as less competent than those with lower mathematics anxiety (Ashcraft & Moore, 2009). This can cause them to avoid mathematics and potentially limit their career paths.
Strategies to Ameliorate Mathematics Anxiety
Factors leading to mathematics success can include motivation, temperament, attitude, and interest (Tobias, 1993). There is no sure fire cure for mathematics anxiety but below are four strategies within a teacher's control to assist with alleviating it. Since mathematics anxiety often has less to do with a student's actual mathematics ability than the fear surrounding it, it is important for teachers to make time for students to express their feelings toward mathematics as a discipline both orally and in writing to quell some of their fears.
Mathematics autobiographies. Mathematics autobiographies are one strategy to assist students in expressing themselves mathematically. I have my elementary preservice teacher candidates write one at the onset of every semester as a way for them to gain greater insight into themselves in relation to mathematics and for me to use that information understand my students on a deeper level and to inform my teacher methods. I ask my teacher candidates to respond to the following prompts:
What is mathematics? In other words, if you were asked to define it, how would you respond? How did you come to believe mathematics as you have defined it? How might your definition have evolved over time?
What is your relationship with mathematics? What experiences led you to this relationship?
Who or what do you believe have been your greatest influences on how you define mathematics and how you feel about the content area?
What do you believe are best practices for teaching mathematics? How did you arrive at those beliefs?
In conversations following the completion of their mathematics autobiographies, some candidates reveal that it was traumatic to relive their mathematics experiences but important to do so in order to not pass their anxiety on to their students and not perpetuate a cycle of negative mathematics affect. Prompts for students to reveal their relationships with mathematics can be tailored to differing grade bands from sentence starters to more developed essays as discussed in an earlier article (see Gujarati, 2011).
Journaling. Test anxiety is prevalent in the current educational climate, not just with the onslaught of high-stakes testing, but testing routinely at the end of chapters or units. Another strategy to help alleviate some anxiety is to have students do some free writing about their emotions prior to a test. This strategy affords students the opportunity to express their feeling about the test prior to taking it as they write freely for five or ten minutes. Those in the early elementary grades can even express themselves through pictures if their writing skills are limited. Writing about mathematics fears and worries has even shown to boost mathematics test scores of mathematics anxious students (Ramirez & Beilock, 2011) as writing is thought to alleviate the burden that negative thoughts place on working memory (Maloney & Beilock, 2012).
Open dialogue. A teacher can make the time to have conversations with each student or small groups of students about how they feel about mathematics lessons, what they believe are their strengths and areas improvement, or some of their mathematics goals for the year. Just make sure these mathematics conversations are ongoing throughout the year so that mathematics is no longer perceived as such a "scary" subject for some students. Elementary students I have worked with over the years appreciate opportunities to talk openly in a safe environment about mathematics to help alleviate some of their anxiety.
Multiple entry points. Teachers need to value multiple avenues to arrive at a solution. There might be only one correct answer but varied strategies to get there. Having a teacher value multiple entry points and paths to problem-solving could alleviate some fear students might have in showing their work to peers if multiple perspectives are valued. How students discuss and share their personal approaches to problem solving is another form of self-expression which also promotes conceptual understanding rather than mere procedural knowledge.
In conclusion, although mathematics is not a favored subject of all, there are strategies teachers can employ to help reduce mathematics anxiety and foster positive mathematics dispositions in students through self-expression of varying oral and written forms. By confronting mathematics anxiety in students' early years, they may be more apt to engage with more advanced mathematics in their later years which can open up many possibilities that may have otherwise been limited to them in their lives.
Arem, C. (2010). Conquering math anxiety. Canada: Cengage Learning, Inc.
Ashcraft, M. H. (2002). Math anxiety: Personal, educational, and cognitive consequences. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 11(5), 181-185.
Ashcraft, M. H., & Moore, A. M. (2009). Mathematics anxiety and the affective drop in performance. Journal of Psychoeducational Assessment, 27(3), 197-205.
Beilock, S. L., & Willingham, D. T. (2014). Math anxiety: Can teachers help students reduce it? American Educator, 38(2), 28-32.
Geist, E. (2010). The anti-anxiety curriculum: Combating math anxiety in the classroom. Journal of Instructional Psychology, 37(1), 24-31.
Gujarati, J. (2011). Understanding students’ mathematics identities: Setting the stage for positive mathematics journeys. Strategies for Successful Learning, 5(1). Retrieved from
Maloney, E. A., & Beilock, S. L (2012). Math anxiety: Who has it, why it develops, and how to guard against it. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 16(8), 404-406.
Ramirez, G., & Beilock, S. L (2011). Writing about testing worries boosts exam performance in the classroom. Science, 331, 211-213.
Tobias, S. (1993). Overcoming math anxiety. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Joan Gujarati, Ed.D. is the Associate Dean for Accreditation and Technology in the School of Education at Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York where she taught the childhood mathematics methods courses. She is a former elementary school teacher and Math Teacher Leader. Dr. Gujarati has presented at numerous professional conferences and has published in the field of childhood mathematics education. Dr. Gujarati’s research interests include early childhood and elementary mathematics education, teacher beliefs and identity, teacher quality, effectiveness, and retention, and curriculum development. Dr. Gujarati can be reached at email@example.com