So many people struggle with mathematics that there’s a term for the dread you feel when faced with a calculation: math anxiety. But the good news is, math doesn’t have to be scary.
Dr. Lindsey Daniels (she/hers), an assistant professor of teaching in the UBC department of mathematics, has some tips for high school and beyond to help students overcome their fear of fractions and succeed in the classroom.
What is math anxiety?
Math anxiety is a the very real feeling of tension and discomfort that interferes with the manipulation of numbers and the solving of math problems in a wide variety of situations. People can experience it from calculating a tip in a restaurant to converting measurements in baking. Math anxiety can contribute to ‘affective drop’, where students experience a drop in math performance due to their working memory being overwhelmed while performing a mathematical task.
Math has a reputation for being difficult. While math can be challenging, it hones our critical thinking skills and teaches us a framework for approaching and solving problems.
What are some tips for students?
There’s no silver bullet because everyone’s experience with math anxiety is different, and so everyone’s strategies will be different. And, those strategies might differ over time too! Having said that, some helpful general tips are:
- Find a study strategy that works for you, whether that’s summarizing the key points from every lesson and then doing practice problems, completing a practice test and focusing on areas where you felt less confident, or the Pomodoro Technique of 25 minutes of studying with a five-minute break, to name a few.
- Self-affirmation questions like ‘What’s one thing you’re proud of this term?’ or ‘Why is problem solving important to me?’ can be helpful to boost confidence and highlight how far you’ve come. If you find it helpful, ask them often, even every day. Attitudes towards math, including self-confidence, can be a huge contributor to success.
- Connect with other classmates and make use of on campus resources. In an upcoming paper, we found university students who were encouraged to utilize additional math resources reported more positive experiences when asked to complete a self-affirmation exercise before their final exam.
- When it comes to test time, it can be helpful to simulate the test environment. If it’s a one hour test, start a timer, clear all distractions away, sit down, and do the full practice test. You gain experience in a low stakes way, and you get used to having to sit with no distractions for an extended period of time. This also means on test day, it’s not as big of a shock to the system.
How can parents help?
One good tip for parents is to have a positive attitude towards math in their home and to normalize seeking help. Younger students, particularly those in elementary school, can be influenced by parental beliefs and expectations towards math, including when it comes to gender stereotypes.
Parents can also provide a supportive learning environment at home, particularly for math. A couple of examples that come to mind are telling children, “I see how hard you’re working”, “It’s okay to ask questions”, and “You haven’t mastered this yet, but I know you will”.
For parents that might be uncomfortable with math or providing math support to their children, having some additional resources on hand can be helpful. There are some good online resources available including the Centre for Education in Math and Computing and Khan Academy (although the latter follows the U.S. education system). Parents can also ask if they can watch together and learn along with their child.
Media Relations Specialist, UBC Media Relations