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What is Math Anxiety and how do we prevent it?

The joke that "5/4 people are bad with fractions" will get a quick giggle out of most, mainly as being bad at math has become such a cultural trope. Looking deeper, it's not so much a matter of being bad at math, as having math anxiety. Math Anxiety is a real phenomenon that has been a subject of formal research for the past several decades. Understanding it and knowing how to prevent it in young children is a critical part of setting them on a path to excelling in STEM fields in the future.

What is Math Anxiety?

Math anxiety is defined by a state of increased stress and heightened anxiety when confronted with solving math problems. This phenomenon is observed in adults, but originates far earlier in childhood, when he or she is confronted with an unpleasant experience associated with mathematics.

What is it about math?

The pressure of math lies in the notion that there is only one correct answer, one that cannot be retrieved from memory, but has to be figured out through a set of steps. Unlike any other subject (at least in primary and middle school), math is a subject operated on numbers, and taps into different parts of the brain -- focused less on retrieval from long-term memory, and more on working through the problem in the working memory. A 2017 review paper has identified that a significant factor that induces math anxiety is the perceived time-restraint on solving math problems (Caviola at al., 2017). This makes sense, as the pressure to perform interferes with our working memory, which worsens our ability to process information causing us to perform worse. Bad outcomes lead us to think that we're just not good, when in fact we have not been given the right environment to perform well.

This indeed makes sense. For example, have you ever excelled at a task, only to mess up miserably as soon as you're in a time crunch, or when you have an audience? The same concept applies to math performance, and during my tutoring days it wasn't uncommon to hear that the student "got every question right during homework practice, but flunked their exam".

What can be done?

The most impact is weighed in the type of learning environment we create for students. As with all stressful situations in life, some children will be better at managing their confrontation with challenges than others, however this is not an indicator of later success. What's important is to identify the pace at which the student excels and to follow it. Here are some tips on how we can help our students avoid developing math anxiety:

  1. Avoid time restraints Some kids thrive under pressure -- they enjoy timed math drills and will be the first to hand in the assignments. However this is hardly the case for majority of students, and such an environment can create unnecessary aversion to math. Before questions can be done fast, they should first be learned to be done correctly. During the true learning stage, create an environment that eliminates external pressures such as timed drills or a competitive environment (ie. incentivizing to complete work fastest and/or with most correct answers). Make it very clear that getting questions correctly is far important than the speed at which they're done, and communicate this priority. This takes me to my second point.

  2. Be mindful of the feedback Things won't always go smoothly with learning, so if things are not clicking right away, remain patient and optimistic. How you react to your child going through learning obstacles will contribute to how they develop their internal dialogue when dealing with hardships in the future. Focus on resolving their frustrations, and avoid phrases such as "how many times do we need to go over this?" and "can you pick up the pace?".

  3. Build confidence through practice There is no shame in taking a few steps back and enforcing previously covered topics before moving onto the next steps. Practice not only reinforces knowledge, but builds confidence to take on future challenges. The reality is, it will be impossible to avoid external pressures with the competitive nature of education and timed examinations all throughout school and university, and the harsh reality is, if you're finding that your student is continuously struggling, it probably means that they need more practice.

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