What is Math Anxiety? How Do You Overcome It?

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Do you laugh at jokes trashing mathematics with a passion? Do you, every year, develop a certain vendetta against your math textbook — or teacher? Are you a person who hates math? Most importantly, how do you overcome that? Math anxiety is real and overcoming it can be hard.

First, we will discuss what math anxiety really is, and where it originates. After that, we’ll look at techniques for getting over any math anxiety you may be feeling right now. Finally, there’s a quick self-test for you to measure your own math anxiety. Let’s get to it.

What is Math Anxiety? Is Fear of Mathematics Real?

What is Math Anxiety? Is Fear of Mathematics Real?

What is Math Anxiety? Is Fear of Mathematics Real?

A new term has come into use called ‘math anxiety.’ Don’t be fooled by the name, though — math anxiety is not an anxiety disorder, and can not be diagnosed by a physician. ‘Math anxiety’ simply refers to the stress some students experience when interacting with math. This is actually great, though, because while real anxiety disorders can be difficult and complicated to deal with, ‘math anxiety,’ if faced head-on, can be eradicated.

What exactly is ‘math anxiety’? ‘Math anxiety’ refers to students’ fear, stress toward, or perceived hatred of mathematics. It can begin early on, and is usually fostered in students as young as elementary school by a variety of factors: public embarrassment, poor teachers, and pop culture, to name a few. We’ll get in to that quite soon. First, let’s look at some common symptoms:

What are Common Symptoms of Math Anxiety?

What are Common Symptoms of Math Anxiety?

Common symptoms of ‘math anxiety’ are feelings of hopelessness or frustration toward math (“I will never learn!”), feelings of embarrassment or shame (“Why can I never get it right?” “I suck at math and always will”).

These feelings, in turn, lead one to avoid studying or doing math homework (“I’m never going to need it in life anyway”). And that makes one fall behind.

Students who don’t study tend to do worse than students who do — it’s not a matter of who’s smart and who isn’t, but a matter of who puts in the work. However, students with feelings of math anxiety who do not study will tend to do worse in math classes, which further feeds their math anxiety.

In this way, math anxiety is a self-supporting cycle: you don’t like math, or feel anxious thinking about it, so you zone out in class or avoid doing homework. Not paying attention or studying makes you do worse on tests, which makes you feel more anxious. And so on.

Ultimately, math anxiety can lead to global avoidance of mathematics, which essentially means that students avoid taking math classes or engaging in situations which require maths — say, they would opt for a more conceptual, rather than mathematical, physics class. This can be fine — but it can also prove a major obstacle to any STEM major, nearly all of which require math classes. Not to mention that half the SAT and a fourth of the ACT are based on math. Furthermore, many colleges like to see students challenging themselves — not avoiding math classes at all costs.

Don’t let that scare you, though — if you have math anxiety, there are ways to fix it. You are smart and resilient. You will get into college and succeed. You are not doomed.

Now let’s look at the basis of this math anxiety you’re fighting.

How Does Math Anxiety First Appear?

How Does Math Anxiety First Appear?

How Does Math Anxiety First Appear?

Frankly, math anxiety is rarely the fault of the student — how could it be, when it first appears in kids as young as kindergarteners? There is no technical research on math anxiety (we’ll get to that), but basically it forms from a few specific seeds:

Pop Culture

First, there is a major vendetta against math pervading all pop culture. Maybe elementary students aren’t as aware of pop culture as their far older peers, but even young students are witness to their parents or teachers labelling math as ‘hard’ and ‘tricky.’ Who hasn’t heard a trusted friend or adviser say “I wasn’t smart enough for math”? This leads kids who have no idea whether they are good at math or not to believe that ‘math is hard,’ which naturally makes them want to avoid it — and to see their own flaws whenever they try.

Second, a lot of teachers simply don’t like math. Even if teachers don’t tell their students explicitly, their lack of enthusiasm can subliminally influence students to dislike math, too.

Testing

Math is hard, but math is easier to measure than any other discipline, especially early on. History and elementary-level science are pretty concept-based, and reading comprehension is very important, but difficult to measure quantitatively. As American schools are turned more and more toward testing, math takes the focal point. Some schools’ funding — and teachers’ salaries — are even dependent on their students’ test scores.

There are a lot of good reasons for testing students’ math ability — namely, it holds teachers accountable that their students do not fall behind. If a student is falling behind, they can be given help early on. But there are also negative effects of this testing — teachers teach to the test, rather than giving students a thorough understanding; and students can be ranked, which naturally makes those in the lower strata feel ashamed. It sucks to be publicly humiliated; it sucks even more when you’re seven and never had a chance to excel at the subject you’re now being criticized for. Students put in low-performance groups can develop a complex from a very young age that they are ‘bad at math,’ even if that is not the case at all.

Math as Magic

Nearly all subjects build on themselves: you learn the alphabet, then how to read simple words, and then how to analyze text and write essays. Your very basic ‘Columbus discovered America’ changes to ‘Columbus discovered people already living in America,’ and changes again at higher levels to ‘Columbus committed genocide.’ You learn the solar system in elementary school, and ten years later, you use calculus and the laws of gravitation to calculate planets’ orbits.

None of these examples are as cut-and-dry as the steps of math: you learn how to count, and by counting on your fingers, you add. You add the same number a lot of times, and that’s multiplication. You multiply the same number by itself many times, and that’s exponents. If you understand the steps, it’s not magic.

The problem is, math is hard, and there are test brackets to reach, so a lot of teachers begin teaching math as though it is magic. Rather than understanding long subtraction, you are taught ‘borrowing’ and good, accurate techniques — but if they do not register in your mind as logical steps, it ultimately doesn’t help. If math is magic that must be handed down by some higher power, of course you don’t like it — you have no control or understanding of it.

Of course, anyone reading this article understands how subtraction works, even if you don’t remember the vocabulary around it (and who needs to?). But there are probably holes in your math knowledge — maybe your trigonometry teacher never explained sines and cosines to your satisfaction, or the log function still confuses you. Maybe you skipped the theorem on how to find derivatives, and just use the quick way, and you trust that it’s accurate, but you couldn’t re-create what Newton did. We’ve all been there.

Just remember two things:

Just because you don’t understand something does not mean you’re stupid, or lacking in any way.

Avoiding the problem won’t make it go away.

Now, one more note on math anxiety, and then we’ll go to solutions!

What Does the Research Say About Math Anxiety?

What Does the Research Say About Math Anxiety?

What Does the Research Say About Math Anxiety?

Let’s be honest: there is little to no solid, accredited research by higher institutions concerning math anxiety. That said, there are a lot of surveys and statistics on math anxiety — some of which are quite professionally conducted and reviewed in educator circles. Teachers recognize that many of their students struggle with math, and they are investigating the reasons behind why students fear mathematics, then seeking solutions. What have they found? Read on and see!

How Do You Alleviate Math Anxiety?

How Do You Alleviate Math Anxiety?

To overcome your math anxiety, you have to break the destructive cycle of fear-avoidance-fear. Most of us can’t grab our fear in a fist and crush it; that means you’d do best to tackle avoidance. It isn’t easy, but with time and persistence, it will get easier, to the point where you don’t feel any math stress.

Here are some strategies for reducing math anxiety:

Study math.

Go over your notes, or do your homework. Make sure that you understand what you are doing; seeing yourself succeed, even if it is just on a homework assignment, will improve your self-confidence and reduce your stress toward math.

Find a support system.

This can be a teacher, parent, or even friend. Most of us know at least one other student who is skilled at math, or a kindly teacher who can help explain. Even if you and your current math teacher don’t click, think of previous teachers you’ve had, or even a teacher you haven’t had with a good reputation. Maybe your adviser can help you. There’s probably someone out there, and you can use them as a resource when you don’t understand.

Organize your notes.

Organize your notes.

Disorganization creates stress. To be truthful, math is difficult to take notes for — ‘lecture’ isn’t as straightforward as it is with most humanities or science classes, and class is generally full of practice problems. Find a way to organize your notes — via highlights, underlining, or separating your practice problems on a different page — so that you can access formulas and information easily.

Attack your tests.

When you know there is a test coming up, create a study plan. Clearly delineate which concepts you know, and which you need to work on. Plan when you will study, either with a planner or calendar, or something more informal (think texting yourself “math after dinner Thursday night”). Then study those concepts which need work, and seek out a friend or advisor if you need someone else to explain. By the time the test rolls around, you should feel ready — then walking out of the test room, rather than feeling defeated, you’ll be strutting with confidence.

Overcome your own self-talk.

The biggest producer of math anxiety isn’t teachers, or tests, or other students — it’s you. That’s not an accusation. The fact is, your friends don’t actually care if you’re good at math; your teachers aren’t judging you in particular when they teach dozens of students. It’s your instincts that fear shame or humiliation, and your subconscious urging you to avoid that shame by avoiding math altogether. It’s not your fault, but it is something you can recognize in yourself, and take responsibility for.

Ultimately, if you succeed on a test, you should feel proud. You worked hard, learned the concepts, and owned that test. But if you are struggling, you must look at your own behavior; what can you do to make yourself succeed?

Other Tips for Reducing Math Stress

Other Tips for Reducing Math Stress

Other Tips for Reducing Math Stress

Apart from the tips above, here are a few pointers:

Don’t let math feel like magic.

If you don’t understand something, ask questions — either in front of the class, or in private. If a certain method simply doesn’t make sense to you, ask the teacher to break it down, or go through the proof with you. Make sure you understand why you are doing what you are doing.

Read your textbook.

This is a double-edged sword, because some textbooks suck. But at higher levels, even poorly written textbooks have lists of formulas and mathematical proofs for those formulas, which can help aid understanding. So, read your textbook when you need a little extra help.

Prove things to yourself.

Forgot the laws of exponents? That’s fine! Use small numbers and prove how it works yourself. Like so:

an*m = (an)m ????

22*3 = 26 = 2*2*2*2*2*2 = 64, and (22)3 = (4)3 = 4*4*4 = 64

Therefore, an*m = (an)m !!!!

You can always prove laws of mathematics, and doing so makes you feel empowered. You own that math!

Test Yourself for Math Anxiety (Self-Test) -- this section should be an adaptation of Ellen Freedman's test

Test Yourself for Math Anxiety (Self-Test) — this section should be an adaptation of Ellen Freedman’s test

Still don’t want to do that math homework in your bag? Don’t worry, we’ve got more for you to read:

Rate these questions on a scale of how much they apply to you. Then add them up (and face your hatred of anything mathematical head on!)

I feel my mood drop when I step in to math class. 1 2 3 4 5

I dislike presenting problems on the board in front of the class. 1 2 3 4 5

I am afraid to ask questions. 1 2 3 4 5

I do not like being called on. 1 2 3 4 5

I feel like I am not prepared for what we are learning. 1 2 3 4 5

I tend to zone out in math class. 1 2 3 4 5

The thought of testing makes me feel stressed. 1 2 3 4 5

I don’t know how to study for math tests. 1 2 3 4 5

(a quick interlude, because this is very common: practice problems!! There are plenty in the back of your book, and on KhanAcademy, which is free)

I think I understand, but struggle to work the problems on my own. 1 2 3 4 5

I’m afraid of falling behind the rest of the class. 1 2 3 4 5

Okay, now add them up! (Betcha you can do it without a calculator!)

40-50 Ouch, you and math aren’t the best of friends. That’s okay! Face it and study for your next test!

30-39 Getting there. You’ll be alright.

20-29 This is pretty normal.

10-19 Why are you reading this? You’re fine!

Wrapping Things Up: Identifying and Coping with Math Anxiety

What are your takeaways?

Math anxiety in students is very normal. It is not an anxiety disorder, and it can be overcome by focusing on studying, cultivating good habits, and building self-confidence.

A big key to math anxiety is fear of failure, which is quite often unfounded — you are better at math than you think.

Math is not magic! Make sure you understand what you are doing, and why it works.

That’s it! Now stop reading and get to your homework!

Professor Conquer
Professor Conquer

Professor Conquer started Conquer Your Exam in 2018 to help students feel more confident and better prepared for their tough tests. Prof excelled in high school, graduating top of his class and receiving admissions into several Ivy League and top 15 schools. He has helped many students through the years tutoring and mentoring K-12, consulting seniors through the college admissions process, and writing extensive how-to guides for school.

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