Don’t panic! You can combat math anxiety

Math anxiety affects both your emotional health and academics. It is a feeling of tension, helplessness and loss of self-confidence when approaching a math problem, math equation or math test. Panic attack symptoms include freezing up, sweating or experiencing increased blood pressure and nervousness.

Don't let math anxiety get the best of you. (Credit: Mary Lou Baker)

Don’t let math anxiety get the best of you. (Credit: Mary Lou Baker)

This math test anxiety can lead to avoidance of math classes, poor preparation and ill feelings toward anything related to math. Here are some ways to learn how to stop anxiety over math for better student health.

The science behind math anxiety

Believe it or not, there is a science behind math anxiety. University of Chicago scientists used brain-imaging technology on people experiencing math anxiety to see how they overcame their nervousness to succeed in math. Researchers found a network of brain areas in the frontal and parietal lobes involved in controlling attention and regulating negative emotional reactions when people are faced with a difficult math problem.

In “Brain study reveals how successful students overcome math anxiety,” posted on UChicago News October 20, 2011, William Harms quoted results from Sian Beilock, associate professor in psychology at the University of Chicago. “Instead of feeling anxious about an impending math task, students who could focus their attention were able to complete difficult math problems more successfully… For math-anxious individuals to succeed, they need to focus on controlling their emotions,” the researcher explained.

Tips on reducing math anxiety

Faculty members Nina Bohrod, Candace Blazek and Sasha Verkovtseva at Anoka-Ramsey Community College in Minnesota offered tips on “How to Overcome Math Anxiety”: “Try to understand the ‘why’ of math concepts rather than memorizing. The first thing to go when you are under stress is your short-term memory. This is one reason it is so important to understand that math is not just a set of rules that you have to memorize but that each concept builds on what came before.”

The teachers recommended understanding the reason behind the math rules so you’ll remember the concepts better and be able to apply them in many different types of problems, not just ones you already know how to do.

Other tips:

  • Prepare for math tests early. Practice a little every day to let the concepts seep into your brain over time. Cramming at the last minute will make you forget too quickly.
  • Do all the math problems, even if you don’t understand some of them. Skip the ones you may not get at first and move on to the others. Eventually you’ll be able to formulate ideas on how to do the troublesome exercises.
  • Do all the math problems, even if you do understand them all. Don’t think you can skip your homework if you understand the concepts. Finishing the assignment gives you practice, practice, practice.
  • Ask the professor for help. Much of math is progressive, so if you’re already lost on the initial math concepts, you’ll end up too far behind once the advanced concepts are introduced.
  • Find a support group for help with math concepts.
  • Reject negative thinking about math and instead visualize yourself succeeding at math. Repeat phrases like: “I’m prepared.” “I know this material.”
  • Learn stress management and relaxation techniques, such as deep breathing and meditation.

How to recognize math anxiety

In Childhood Education‘s Spring 2003 article, “Math Anxiety: Overcoming a Major Obstacle to the Improvement of Student Math Performance. (Review of Research),” by Joseph M. Furner and Barbara T. Berman, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) suggests that teachers assess students’ mathematical dispositions with these criteria:

  • Confidence in using math to solve problems, communicate ideas, and reason
  • Flexibility in exploring mathematical ideas and trying a variety of methods when solving problems
  • Willingness to persevere in mathematical tasks
  • Interests, curiosity, and inventiveness in doing math
  • Ability to reflect on and monitor their own thinking and performance while doing math
  • Focus on value of and appreciation for math in relation to its real-life application, connections to other disciplines, existence in other cultures, use as a tool for learning, and characteristics as a language.

For more information on math anxiety, visit Questia.

How do you try to overcome math anxiety? Tell us in the comments.

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