As a mathematics instructor, you’ve seen the symptoms: the look of panic, avoiding the material, the lack of confidence. These are all symptoms of a student suffering from a condition known as mathematics anxiety.
Students can respond to anxiety in different ways - some being spurred into action, others feeling overwhelmed and unable to function in their mathematical situation. As instructors, we need to acknowledge when our students are anxious toward mathematics and find ways to help them build confidence and move past anxiety to achieve success in their studies.
What can we do to help? A few tips to help you alleviate the anxiety your students may be facing:
- Let them work together. Cooperative groups provide students a chance to exchange ideas, to ask questions freely, to explain to one another and to clarify ideas in meaningful ways. Students working in groups can increase their mathematical self-efficacy (one’s belief in one’s ability to succeed) while reducing their mathematics anxiety compared to students working on their own. Implement group activities if you don’t already or try a group quiz.
- Let them learn from their mistakes. How we respond to errors greatly affects how our students learn to communicate within our classrooms. Our students will make mistakes, and it’s up to us to avoid consoling them and to make sure these become opportunities for learning. How? (See our previous post with tips about how to respond to student errors!)
- Give them lots of feedback. The creation of high stakes, summative assessments may have its place in a mathematics curriculum but it fosters anxiety in many of our students. Using a variety of assessments is one suggested technique for helping students overcome anxiety.
Communicate with students to gauge their understanding often - don’t wait for exams after a month of class to find out if they’re struggling. Check in with them during class - ask students to volunteer their solutions or present alternative methods to problems. This provides a great opportunity to have rich discussions and give students a voice in the classroom.
A daily (or weekly) problem is a good end-of-lesson check in technique - it doesn’t have to be graded, but quickly glancing through student responses after class can help you plan for the next class and give you insight into student understanding more often.
Ashcraft, M.H., (2002). Math Anxiety: Personal, Educational, and Cognitive Consequences. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 11 (5) pp 181-185
Beilock, S. & Willingham, D. T. (2014). Math anxiety: Can teachers help students reduce it? American Educator, Summer, 28-32,43.
Mevarech, Z., Silber, O., & Fine, D. (1991). Learning with computers in small groups: Cognitive and affective outcomes. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 7(2), 233-243.
Zemelman, S., Daniels, H., and Hyde, A. (1998). Best practice: New standards for teaching and learning in America’s school (2nd Edition). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.