You look down at your timetable and your heart sinks. It’s math, again. Your heart starts pounding, and your palms go clammy. As you walk into the class and sit down, there’s a huge knot in your stomach. The equations you’re supposed to be working out in your textbook are swimming in front of you, and you can’t seem to make sense of anything, but all your classmates are busily writing down their answers…

Alright, enough with the drama, but math anxiety is REAL.

Academics from Cambridge’s Faculty of Education and Centre for Neuroscience have surveyed 1,700 British children on their feelings towards maths as a subject and discovered that 10% of them had symptoms of math anxiety in some form. Emotional reactions towards the subject ranged from “apprehension” to “rage and despair”, whilst physical reactions included shortness of breath, racing heart, and sweating.

In fact, it’s becoming so much of a problem that some researchers are calling it a “national crisis”, with the number of adults holding math skills equivalent to a GCSE grade C falling year after year (according to the charity National Numeracy).

Here are 5 great ways to overcome math anxiety, and even get students on the road to enjoying math.

1. Make math fun

Nothing is worse than a boring math lesson with a teacher droning on about quadratic equations while scrawling complicated examples on the whiteboard.

Students who are not engaged with what they are learning and who they are learning from are less likely to remember the things they are taught. Increasingly, teachers are using games to make lessons more engaging and fun, and this can be true for math lessons.

There is a myriad of math games readily available on the internet, and also lots of worksheets and activities that you can use in the classroom to keep students engaged and having fun while learning. According to Educause, the gamification of learning helps students to learn that “failure is neither a setback nor an outcome but rather an indication that more work is needed to master the skill or knowledge at hand”. This is an important thing for them to learn, as math anxiety is often linked to feelings of failure or bad results – which can soon create a vicious cycle.

Making math fun by incorporating games and varied activities in lessons will mean that students inherently want to learn.


2. Get a tutor

Did you know that one month of overall learning is lost over the summer holidays? For students who are already more unsure of their math ability, coming back after the school holidays feeling like they’ve forgotten everything can really increase math anxiety. Employing a tutor to do one-to-one sessions with a student, both during term-times and school holidays, can give them more confidence.

A recent US study, involving 46 seven-to-nine-year-old children, had them participate in 50 minutes of math tutoring per week. An MRI scan before and after showed that their levels of anxiety greatly reduced after the sessions.

This is because tutoring one-to-one allows the student to move at their own pace and freely ask questions when they don’t understand something. In a classroom setting, they might feel embarrassed to speak up, or simply be left behind.

Overcoming math anxiety

Photo by Katrina on Unsplash

3. Positive reinforcement

Imagine you’re a thirteen-year-old student. Your dad is constantly laughing at your math problems, saying things like “when will you ever need that equation in real life? You could just use the calculator on your phone to work that out!” Your mum is always saying things like, “those equations always went right over my head. I’m just not a mathsy person”.

In a study conducted on 595 students aged 10-15, it was shown that in homes where the parents demonstrated some form of math anxiety, the children performed to a lower standard than in homes where the parents had a more positive attitude towards math. The children of parents who demonstrated some form of math anxiety also exhibited their own negative feelings towards the subject.

Of course, these parents were not deliberately trying to sabotage their child’s relationship with math, but it is so important that parental input is productive. This can include things like helping with their homework and encouraging them in their efforts to complete problems that they are finding difficult.

Parents and teachers alike can help to cultivate positive associations with math. For example, rather than a teacher threatening punishment if the exercise is not completed, he or she could encourage completion of the work by promising a reward to the first person to complete it.

4. Encourage understanding not memorizing

There are two ways of learning; memorizing by rote, or understanding the method behind the answers. An article by an academic in Hong Kong summed up the superior method of learning by memory like this: “Using a deep approach a student has the intention to understand. Information may be remembered, but this is viewed as an almost unintentional by-product”.

Understanding the method behind solving problems is a good way to alleviate math anxiety because it means that if the question is asked in a slightly different way, the student won’t get stuck. Students who learn by rote and memory consistently achieve lower results, according to this PISA study incorporating thirteen million children. It is definitely valuable to memorize things when learning, but only when memorization comes as a result of working problems repeatedly until they are understood.

Understanding the theory or methodology encourages students to think outside the box when solving math problems and promotes creativity, as they won’t always need to use the same way of doing things, but can try to find different paths to reach the same outcome. This boost of confidence at being able to get to the right answer will help with any anxiety related to math, because students will feel in control of the problem, rather than overwhelmed by it.


5. Turn anxiety into excitement

You’re standing in the ring, and the bull is about to charge. You’ve got the red flag in your right hand, and your left hand is clenched sweatily at your side. Just before the whistle goes, you think to yourself over and over “I am calm and confident. The bull is going to walk right past”. And it does!

While that may be a lighthearted example, it’s a good anecdote for how just re-framing a situation or a problem in your head can totally change the outcome. The same is true for a math problem. If a student feels that they are getting anxious and saying things like “I’m worried about this problem”, you could have them reframe their words so they sound positive, e.g., “I can’t wait to solve this problem”, which immediately changes the mood and their attitude towards the problem.

Alison Wood-Brooks, in her study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, found that people who were about to be put into a stressful situation could perform better and achieve better results if they reframed their anxiety as excitement. It’s almost as if you can trick your brain into believing it really is exciting, so you don’t get the normal symptoms of nerves. You create an “opportunity mindset” rather than a “threat mindset” where your body automatically goes into fight or flight mode.

This is a collaboration post with My Tutor.