What is math anxiety? The Australian Council of Educational Research (ACER) defines maths anxiety as “feelings of unease and worry experienced when thinking about mathematics or completing mathematical tasks”.  Maths anxiety is highly prevalent in today’s society.

25% to 80% of the college population in the United States of America has some form of maths anxiety which has caused people to have significant self-doubt in their ability to do maths, causing them great distress. When a person has maths anxiety, their brain continually thinks about the anxiety rather than the actual maths problem.

This causes the brain to allocate the working memory and other resources that it would normally use with computations of the maths problem to the anxiety itself causing the person not to learn or retain the relevant skills or information.

Maths anxiety can easily be identified. The symptoms of maths anxiety range from simple low confidence problems to more complex physical symptoms. If you find yourself doing either of the following, you may have maths anxiety:

  • If you have low confidence and have negative thoughts such as “I am no good at maths”, “I won’t be able to do this”, “I am never going to understand this maths concept”
  • If you have physical symptoms such as increased heart rate, increased breathing or a panic attack when thinking about or doing maths


How to Reduce and Overcome Math Anxiety.

Maths anxiety can be addressed in a positive way using six strategies. The strategies will need to be employed over time to see the results. The strategies are also recommended for people without maths anxiety to further, develop their maths skills.

Strategy 1: Creating a safe, calm and comfortable environment in which to study maths: A safe and comfortable environment when studying maths is essential. When you are in a comfortable environment, you have more scope to use your working memory to understand the maths concepts which would otherwise be occupied in a busy or stressful environment.

Strategy 2: Having positive self-efficacy: Self-efficacy is the belief that we are capable of successfully performing a
task, for example studying maths. It is critical to change the negative connotations associated with doing maths to positive thoughts. The human mind is probably one of the most powerful objects that can allow you to either excel or limit what you can do.

Therefore, if you have maths anxiety, it is important that you change negative thoughts such as “I can’t do this” to “I can do this” or “I am no good at maths” to “I am sure if I try, I can get better at maths”. The self-efficacy that you have is a major factor that influences your confidence. As such, it is paramount that it be addressed from the beginning.

Strategy 3: Practising maths concepts by showing all the processes: Maths is all about using the maths processes. It is important for you to practise the maths concepts with all the processes, showing all your workings. When practising the maths concepts with the full working, you are storing the processes in your working memory. This allows you to understand the concept and make a mental map of the concept. It allows your brain to form the connection of where and how to apply the maths concept.

Strategy 4: Seeking help: Asking for help is one of the hardest things that you may have to do. However, for you to succeed with maths (and overcome your maths anxiety if you have it), it is important that you approach your teaching team to seek assistance (or other maths support services which might be available at your university). Your teaching team has extensive experience and knows the concepts in detail.

They can help you by breaking down the concepts into smaller and simpler processes that are easier for you to understand. It is also important to remember that you should seek help from the right people to ensure that you are learning the right things.

Strategy 5: Timed practice: It is essential for you to do the timed practice of maths concepts and to apply the concepts in all their different forms to ensure that you build your confidence completing maths questions and build your speed in applying the concepts.

Timed practice is when you set a timer and work through as many problems as you can in this time. This is modelling what you will need to do during a timed assessment item, such as an exam. During exams and other timed assessment items, the most critical factor is the time you have to complete the questions. To overcome your anxiety of doing maths in timed situations, you need to practice by recreating similar situations.

Strategy 6: Ensuring you understand the process: It cannot be emphasised enough that maths is all about the processes you use to solve problems. It is about training your brain and using your working memory. When you learn and understand the concepts, you make mental mind maps of the concepts, and these are stored in your working memory.

This allows for easier recall and application of the process. Memorising or “cramming” does not help you with learning maths effectively, and thus should be avoided.

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