Solutions for Math anxiety and phobia

Updated: May 18, 2020

Learn about the impact of math phobia on students' performance


I do not enjoy math, this is not a reflection of my self-esteem or my lack of confidence. It’s my personal taste. In my childhood, my parents and teachers would emphasize that being good at science and particularly math would lead to a better job, implying more financial success. While this isn’t inaccurate, statements like this taken out of context could put unnecessary pressure for kids in school.


Many of us use math and process equation daily without even knowing it (Sklar et al., 2012). The belief that there are “math people” is simply elitist and unnecessary. Perpetuating such beliefs could also affect women to disengage from math and sciences (Burkley, Parker, Paul Stermer, & Burkley, 2010), and therefore missing out on career opportunities to better their situations.


1. Performance greatly depends on mindset


For most people who followed the traditional education system, math is a big deal. It’s a noble subject that sets intellectuals apart from the dummies. Being good at math also gives the perception that one is more intelligent because the abstract thinking isn’t accessible to all easily. Math anxiety cripples many people (Dowker, Sarkar, & Looi, 2016) and knowns no gender boundaries amongst students. A study recruited a sample of 64 women and 52 men college students at the end of their second year of university. They found no gender difference in math anxiety or perceptions of the usefulness of mathematics. The only difference was that women were much less likely to pick a career goal related to math (Singer & Stake, 1986).


Thinking that we can’t get good at math is a myth. Math skills can be improved if people practice homework exercises. Students who believe that intelligence is malleable predicted better grades in junior high school whereas thinking that intelligence is fixed predicted no change in grades (Blackwell, Trzesniewski, & Dweck, 2007).


2. Don't let your prof come between you and math

The teacher’s communication skills are crucial in shaping our learning as a positive mindset and appraisal are associated with increasing students’ achievements (De Kraker-Pauw, Van Wesel, Krabbendam, & Van Atteveldt, 2017). When I was in high school, my math teacher had all the characteristics of a poor teacher. She lacked organizational skills that would make a class interesting, she lacked people skills, which disengaged people when she spoke, and she was simply mean. Her class centered around making people feel bad when they didn’t perform as good as she’d hope by making demeaning puns on our last names. My math class was plainly discouraging, and it didn’t make me want to pursue a career in math or anything related to numbers. I was young and didn’t know any better to discern the teacher’s persona to the importance of the subject.

As a kid, I did not have sufficient maturity to go through this math class with compassion and appreciate the knowledge beyond my teacher’s meanness. I was focusing on avoiding pain and embarrassment. Little did I know that my math phobia could have long disastrous impact and limit my career opportunities.


4. Be patient and kind to your mistakes, they'll help you learn

Low confidence could be triggered by foreign concepts that would leave us feeling utterly incompetent, which happens more often than not in Math. We hate to fail, and we hate to feel insufficient and vulnerable. The good thing about failure is that it will teach us a new insight and reveal a blind spot. It takes forgiveness and self-compassion to see the bigger picture and embrace a new learning experience (Neff, Rude, & Kirkpatrick, 2007), so let’s not lose self-confidence over failure since it’s good for resilience.

3. Find a detour

Of course, several factors influence our learning experience, such as access to online resources or a library. Even if the teacher won’t always have the matching style that students require, students are lucky enough nowadays to find resources online to help them fill holes instead of choosing to give up, and if a student perceives determination and school as important, the higher their ability in self-concepts in math and verbal skills (Schütte, Zimmermann, & Köller, 2017).


After abandoning math and science altogether and struggling for years in art school, I realized that I realized I didn’t fit in art either. I was actually very interested in Biology but had a lingering phobia due to my last math class. I made the jump and enrolled into Biology 101 anyways, which led to my current career in research. I avoided math classes at first, and then started with a beginners' class in algebra to work my way up. I was determined to study Biology, so I couldn't back up after all the Bio courses I took. Although I was very lucky to get a second chance at studying science, not everyone overcomes their math phobia, which can have long term career impact (Hembree, 1990). Thus, beginning the cycle of successful grades and increased self-esteem.


4. Do self-esteem programs work?


The great deal with children is that they tend to be more intuitive, they vibe with other people’s intentions more naturally than adults. They can sense when a teacher is passionate because their interest will follow accordingly. For the longest time, people thought that having a high self-esteem would lead to more happiness, financial success and better life conditions. Although a high self-esteem is reported to be more charming, it doesn’t guarantee better school performance, reduced bullying and drug abuse, etc (Baumeister, Campbell, Krueger, & Vohs, 2003). A higher self-esteem would help kids make friends, be more likable and loving, in contrast to low self-esteem that is more likely to increase chances of feeling depression.

When it comes to tests or overcoming math anxiety, only hard work is the ultimate remedy. The cycle goes on as increasing performance in math and sciences involves the students’ self-esteem and engagement (Lee, 2014). Moreover, if the student perceives determination and school as important, the higher their ability in self-concepts in math and verbal skills (Schütte et al., 2017). Then, higher scores increase the students’ self-esteem over time.


5. Be on the other side of the fence

Something that has worked for me is tutoring. Although I did not personally enjoy math for most of my life, I accepted a volunteer position to teach English, but since the school had too many English teachers, they put me in Math. The universe knows when the time comes for a new lesson because this was also the year I took the GRE and tutoring it tremendously helped with my performance.


My first student struggled with equations with variables on both sides. I understood his frustrations and I patiently explained how to get to the answer. His light bulb turned on right away. I was lucky that my first student did not have math anxiety or phobia, and this was the difference with my own experience. People with math phobia feel defeated before they even try. This student did not know how to get the answer, but he listened and connected with my explanation, which led him to follow my voice and be guided. He was also determined to get his diploma and get a better job. People do not always overcome their math phobia, but it was my job to encourage him and work with him to unlock his potential. I ended up falling in love with tutoring and continued for several years, thus making my peace with math.


6. Work it out!


For people who still struggle to pass their math tests, studies have shown that mild exercise could improve academic achievement and increased cognition (Have et al., 2018; Hillman et al., 2009). The practice of a physical activity is not a direct factor in determining the level of self-esteem and academic performance, however students with the highest number of hours of physical activity regularly show higher academic achievement, compared to students who did not work out as much (Batista, Cubo, Honório, & Martins, 2016). But this is only a suggestion and may not work for everyone.

If exercising and hours of tutoring still aren’t sufficient to raise a students’ performance, it’s okay. Let it go for a while. This class or teacher may not be the right one for you. Math does not have to be everyone’s passion or definition of success, but it shouldn’t stop people from pursuing a career because it has math components. I do not use complicated equations every day, and I’m still getting by using technology or asking other people. This hasn’t impeded my ego or my self-esteem. Math is simply a topic, it’s a choice, people should still walk their own path without fear of feeling insufficient if they aren’t enjoying it. Their true passion will eventually come across as easy as π.!





References

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Baumeister, R. F., Campbell, J. D., Krueger, J. I., & Vohs, K. D. (2003). Does High Self-Esteem Cause Better Performance, Interpersonal Success, Happiness, or Healthier Lifestyles? Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 4(1), 1–44. https://doi.org/10.1111/1529-1006.01431

Blackwell, L. S., Trzesniewski, K. H., & Dweck, C. S. (2007). Implicit theories of intelligence predict achievement across an adolescent transition: A longitudinal study and an intervention. Child Development, 78(1), 246–263. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-8624.2007.00995.x

Burkley, M., Parker, J., Paul Stermer, S., & Burkley, E. (2010). Trait beliefs that make women vulnerable to math disengagement. Personality and Individual Differences, 48(2), 234–238. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2009.09.002

De Kraker-Pauw, E., Van Wesel, F., Krabbendam, L., & Van Atteveldt, N. (2017). Teacher mindsets concerning the malleability of intelligence and the appraisal of achievement in the context of feedback. Frontiers in Psychology, 8(SEP). https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01594

Dowker, A., Sarkar, A., & Looi, C. Y. (2016). Mathematics anxiety: What have we learned in 60 years? Frontiers in Psychology, 7(APR). https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00508

Have, M., Nielsen, J. H., Ernst, M. T., Gejl, A. K., Fredens, K., Grøntved, A., & Kristensen, P. L. (2018). Classroom-based physical activity improves children’s math achievement – A randomized controlled trial. PLoS ONE, 13(12), 1–14. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0208787

Hembree, R. (1990). The Nature, Effects, and Relief of Mathematics Anxiety. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 21(1), 33. https://doi.org/10.2307/749455

Hillman, C. H., Pontifex, M. B., Raine, L. B., Castelli, D. M., Hall, E. E., & Kramer, A. F. (2009). The effect of acute treadmill walking on cognitive control and academic achievement in preadolescent children. Neuroscience, 159(3), 1044–1054. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroscience.2009.01.057

Lee, J. S. (2014). The relationship between student engagement and academic performance: Is it a myth or reality? Journal of Educational Research, 107(3), 177–185. https://doi.org/10.1080/00220671.2013.807491

Neff, K. D., Rude, S. S., & Kirkpatrick, K. L. (2007). An examination of self-compassion in relation to positive psychological functioning and personality traits. Journal of Research in Personality, 41(4), 908–916. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jrp.2006.08.002

Schütte, K., Zimmermann, F., & Köller, O. (2017). The role of domain-specific ability self-concepts in the value students attach to school. Learning and Individual Differences, 56, 136–142. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.lindif.2016.10.003

Singer, J. M., & Stake, J. E. (1986). Mathematics and Self-Esteem: Implications for Women’s Career Choice. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 10(4), 339–352. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1471-6402.1986.tb00759.x

Sklar, A. Y., Levy, N., Goldstein, A., Mandel, R., Maril, A., & Hassin, R. R. (2012). Reading and doing arithmetic nonconsciously. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 109(48), 19614–19619. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1211645109