Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Math Anxiety in the Classroom

My palms are sweaty, I feel nervous, my heart is racing, and I have completely forgetten how to do basic must be time for a counting circle. I tell my self that I learned how to add and subtract numbers in grade school so counting in a circle with my peers should not be a challange for me, yet it always is.

Here is a quick description of the concept behind counting circles. To begin you start with a number on the board, it can be any number (positive, negative, even fractions). Then there is a number that you must count by, again this can be any number. So for example one counting circle we might start at 327 and count by -62, or another counting circle we might start at 3/7 and count by 1/9. The part that makes this a counting circle is that everyone in the class is standing in a circle and we all take turns saying the next number in the count. So the first person to start will say the first number (eg. 327+-62=265) and then the next person will count from there (eg. 265+-62=202) and so on until we have gone around the circle a few times. 

It is all just basic math that I, as a math major, should feel comfortable doing but each time a new counting circle starts I feel the same pit in my stomach, the sweaty palms, the fear of making a mistake. Even though in our classroom there is no pressure to get the correct answer (if someone is incorrect the circle keeps going from whatever number they said right or wrong) I still feel so much stress over these circles. So I decided to do some research on math anxiety. 

Students who have such a lack of confidence in their math ability that it actually affects their academic performance are said to have math anxiety. Most students feel anxiety especially in math class because in math there are so many different concepts that are completely foreign to them. A study by the University of Granada in Spain did research on 855 first-year college students with 23 different degrees that all require mandatory math classes. The found that 60% of those students had some for of math anxiety. Of those students who experienced math anxiety 47% were men and 62% were women.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    

Math anxiety and being "bad at math" are two different things, math anxiety produces physical and psychological responses in students when they are presented with math problems. Students who have math anxiety can experience nausea, shortness of breath, sweating, heart palpitations, and increased blood pressure when they are presented with math problems. They can also experience psychological symptoms such as memory loss, paralysis of thought, loss of self-control, negative self-talk, math avoidance, and isoslation. Standford University scientists say that the brain function of young adults who have math anxiety is different that those who don't. They conducted functional magnetic reasonce imgaing on the brains of 2nd and 3rd graders as they worked on math problems. They found that students who experienced math anxiety had increased brain activity in areas associated with fear and decreased activity in the part of the brain associated with problem solving. Other studies have also shows that math anxiety disrupts the working memory of students (The working memory of the brain is very important for problem solving). 

After finding all of this research and reading though articles I realized how important the problem of math anxiety is to us as teachers. How can we expect students to be able to problem solve when science shows decreased activity in that part of the brain if students have math anxiety? Math anxiety is a real problem in classrooms and can effect the success of our students. Some ways that we can help as teachers is to make sure that we are confident in our own math ability. If we are having some form of math anxiety our students can feel that and may be more likely to pick up on those anxieties. We can also help by making sure we know which students may experience some form of math anxiety.   There are surveys and questionaires (eg. Fennema-Sherman Mathematics Attitudes Scales) that can asses levels of math anxiety in students. If we are aware that some students have higher anxiety than others we will be better able to help those students (such as finding them a tutor, giving extended time on a test, extra practice problem etc). 

Math anxiety is a real problem and we will most likley be faced with this problem a lot as teachers. It is very important to make sure that we have the tools to help our students. There are a lot of resources out there on math anxiety, being aware of the problem is the first step to a solution. 


"Math Anxiety." Gifted Child Today (2007). Print.

Thilmany, Jean. "Math Anxiety." Mechanical Engineering (2009). Print.

"Math Anxiety: The Neurodevleopmental Basis of Math Anxiety." Education Week (2012). Print.

Bohrod, Nina, Candance Blazek, and Sasha Verkoutesva. "Math Anxiety." Anoka-Ramsey Community College . Print.