Math Anxiety in Students: Causes and Prevention

By Didi Dunin, CEI Intern 

Having an awareness and understanding of math anxiety is imperative to helping students reach their full potential. Since high math performers can also struggle with high math anxiety, it can easily go unnoticed. Yet, when left unaddressed, these students are less likely than those with low math anxiety to pursue science, technology, engineering, and math-related careers; thus, identifying interventions to reduce math anxiety during childhood is critical (Supekar, Iuculano, Chen, & Menon, 2015). 

Understanding Math Anxiety 

Math anxiety is a negative emotional reaction that is characterized by feelings of tension, apprehension, or fear in situations involving mathematical problem solving. 

It is important for teachers to understand that even though students with higher scores on the Mathematics Anxiety Rating Scale (MARS) tend to underperform their classmates with lower math anxiety scores in certain math domains, higher scores are not reflective of poor math ability.

Specifically, research shows that intrusions and distractions from anxiety take up working memory capacity needed to solve math problems that require borrowing and carrying operations, whereas math problems that require less working memory capacity are less affected by math anxiety (Ashcraft & Krause, 2007). Given more time and a reduction in anxiety levels, students with high math anxiety scores have similar rates of accuracy to their peers with low MARS scores (Ramirez, Shaw, & Maloney, 2018). Interventions that target the anxiety itself can free up the cognitive resources that are required to work through mathematical computations.

Causes

Teacher’s Own Math Anxiety, Attitudes, and Behaviors

Not only is it important for teachers to assess their students’ math anxiety and to understand the underlying cognitive processes, but to also assess their own math anxiety and implicit math biases. Research shows that teachers with high math anxiety who lack confidence in their math abilities transmit this anxiety to their students (Luttenberger, Wimmer, & Paechter, 2018).  

This problem has become all the more prevalent due to math teacher shortages, which has led to more schools relying on less qualified, and therefore less confident, math teachers (Carver-Thomas & Darling-Hammond, 2017). Students are noticing, as evidenced by a study which analyzed over 325,000 student evaluations in the United States. Math teachers were rated consistently lower on teacher effectiveness than teachers who taught qualitative subjects (Uttl & Smibert, 2017).  

Teachers who hold certain beliefs or endorse gender stereotypes can also significantly, albeit unintentionally, impact students’ math anxiety. For example, when teachers believe that some students are “just not good at math,” they often perpetuate the problem by giving these students less challenging problems and avoiding asking them for answers (Rattan, Good, & Dweck, 2012). This is also the case for teachers who endorse the gender stereotype that girls are not as good at math as boys are (Beilock, Gunderson, Ramirez, & Levine, 2011). 

Teaching Methods and Curriculum 

It is not just the teachers’ personal influence that causes students’ math anxiety, but a host of other factors, including the way math is taught and the environment it is taught in. 

Specifically, an over-reliance on traditional instructional activities such as timed worksheets and teaching to the textbook, insisting on only one correct way to get to the final answer, and whole-class lecture instruction can all contribute to high math anxiety in students (Gurganus, 2007). 

A competitive classroom culture can also contribute to high math anxiety. The “drill and kill” method, which emphasizes speed and rote memorization, is no longer regarded as a best practice (Nobel, 2017). Since many educators themselves learned this way, it may take additional effort and training to replace this teaching style with alternative methods, such as teaching students pattern recognition and real-life examples, which are much more beneficial in achieving a deeper understanding of mathematical concepts. Specifically, Richard Rusczyk, a former Math Olympiad winner and the founder of the online math program Art of Problem Solving, believes in using problem-solving and creative thinking to make math challenging, fun, and less anxiety provoking. 

Prevention

General tips for math teachers to help prevent math anxiety include:

  • Having an awareness of their own math anxiety 
  • Being qualified and prepared 
  • Showing enthusiasm and encouragement 
  • Cultivating a growth mindset and emphasizing that everyone makes mistakes in mathematics 
  • Providing help and tutoring outside of classroom sessions 
  • Removing time pressures in testing 
  • Considering alternative forms of assessment that can help students gain confidence 
  • Allowing students to use multiple ways to solve the problem
  • Promoting discussion and cooperative learning 
  • Emphasizing the importance of original, quality thinking rather than rote manipulation of formulas 

Math teachers should also make math fun and concrete. Some ways that teachers can accomplish this is through: 

An abacus is an example of a useful manipulative.

When we combine these innovative learning tools and strategies with teachers’ awareness and intervention, the future for math students looks promising. 

References

Ashcraft, M. H., & Krause, J. A. (2007). Working memory, math performance, and math anxietyPsychonomic Bulletin & Review14(2), 243–248.

Beilock, S. L., Gunderson, E. A., Ramirez, G., & Levine, S. C. (2011). Female teachers’ math anxiety impacts girls’ math achievement. PsycEXTRA Dataset.

Carver-Thomas, D. & Darling-Hammond, L. (2017). Teacher turnover: Why it matters and what we can do about it. Palo Alto, CA: Learning Policy Institute.

Luttenberger, S., Wimmer, S., & Paechter, M. (2018). Spotlight on math anxietyPsychology Research and Behavior ManagementVolume 11, 311–322.

Nobel, R. (2017, June 1). Understanding math has replaced ‘drill and kill.’ United Federation of Teachers.

Ramirez, G., Shaw, S. T., & Maloney, E. A. (2018). Math anxiety: Past research, promising interventions, and a new interpretation framework. Educational Psychologist53(3), 145–164.

Rattan, A., Good, C., & Dweck, C. S. (2012). “Its ok — Not everyone can be good at math”: Instructors with an entity theory comfort (and demotivate) studentsJournal of Experimental Social Psychology48(3), 731–737.

Supekar, K., Iuculano, T., Chen, L., & Menon, V. (2015). Remediation of childhood math anxiety and associated neural circuits through cognitive tutoring. Journal of Neuroscience, 35(36), 12574-12583.

Uttl, B. & Smibert, D. (2017). Student evaluations of teaching: teaching quantitative courses can be hazardous to one’s career. PeerJ.

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