Helping Students Overcome Learning Anxieties

The prevalence of “math anxiety” or “math phobia” is well established. Most of us who teach math have seen it firsthand. But math isn't the only subject that students find frightening or think they can't possibly learn. I'm writing about my efforts to help students overcome their math anxiety, but I think that the strategies I've been using are relevant to students afraid of other subjects.

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The prevalence of “math anxiety” or “math phobia” is well established. Most of us who teach math have seen it firsthand. But math isn't the only subject that students find frightening or think they can't possibly learn. I'm writing about my efforts to help students overcome their math anxiety, but I think that the strategies I've been using are relevant to students afraid of other subjects.

It has been established that students with math anxiety share a number of characteristics that make learning math even more difficult. According to findings of the Counseling Center at Texas State University, “Students who fear math often avoid asking questions to save embarrassment, sit in the back of the classroom, fail to seek help from the professor, and usually put off studying math until the last moment.” Is this true of students afraid of your course content?

There are a large number of suggested methods to reduce math anxiety, ranging from stress reduction to yoga, but none of those are particularly helpful to a teacher faced with a class of students required to learn some math and afraid they can't. My own experience in teaching statistics to adult learners in an accelerated BA program has forced me to experiment with teaching the subject to students who often have already made significant career achievements but are still highly anxious about anything to do with numbers. Three techniques appear to have some efficacy in helping these adult learners.

The first is to stay away from formulas in the introduction of a subject. Often, the mere sight of a formula, no matter how “simple” or “basic” it appears to the teacher, can lead to terror in the student. A formula such as

 

which everyone will learn in statistics, is highly intimidating. Instead, it is helpful to explain the concepts and do the basic math—adding, subtracting, dividing, and squaring, all familiar to most students. Only after the computations have been explained and done will we view the formulas. Often, students are surprised that they have actually completed these! You may not teach content with formulas, but this strategy is about how we introduce content and how it helps students when we present it in ways that are familiar to them.

A second technique is to show that problems can be solved in a variety of ways. This can be done by using several techniques when solving the problem or by asking students to share solved homework problems on the board. A lot of students think that there is only one right way to solve a math problem, and if they don't do it the right way, their answer will be wrong. In reality, there are often multiple ways to solve a problem, all of which generate the right answer. By demonstrating this, students are assured that their particular technique for solving a problem can be quite valid, even if it is not the one shown in the textbook. In other fields this might involve showing students that there are multiple right answers to many questions.

Finally, I have found that the actual practice of doing math (rather than watching me do it or reading about it) can be very helpful. I have students start working on homework problems in class. I tell them to work on the most difficult problem, and I get them all working on it because I tell them that someone is nearby who can help. Often this may be the instructor, though I have found that allowing students to help each other during that exercise in class can often be beneficial to both the student who needs help and the student who gets some validation by explaining it to a peer. I suspect the opportunity to practice working with the content might be helpful to fearful students in many subject areas.

Math anxiety doesn't help students or teachers. It only makes it harder to learn and more difficult to teach. I've found these strategies help my students overcome their fears. Perhaps they will do the same for yours.

Bernard Kingsley at 
bernardk@bu.edu.