Math anxiety is a feeling of frustration and helplessness in the ability to do math. When I was young I had math anxiety big time. I loved math until middle school when I was put in an advanced math class with Mr. Phillips. He was very strict and expected everyone to follow his short chalkboard lessons and finish our work quickly and correctly. He stressed me out so much that I had a brain block and could not understand anything he was teaching us. It took a month of this terrible math anxiety before I had the nerve to tell him I didn’t understand. He had given us our first big math test, and I couldn’t even do one problem. Approaching Mr. Phillips was probably my scariest school memory, as I was sure I would be punished severely. He didn’t get mad at me, but he did take me to an easier math class. What a relief! After that I avoided math. I took the easiest and minimum required math classes all through middle school and high school and got easy A’s. It wasn’t until I was in college in a teacher education math class that I realized I could be successful at more challenging math. Soon I became a lover of math again!
All it took was one teacher to build my math anxiety and one teacher to take it away. So what can teachers do to deal with math anxiety and build a growth mindset?
- It’s so important to find out how students feel about math through an individual interview or a survey. I had a fifth grader tell me the first day of school to just give him an F, because he was no good at math and didn’t want to even try. I was glad he told me this, so I could provide him with appropriate math lessons, challenges and successes. You may download this math mindset survey.
- Make sure students know that everyone can be successful in math, if they put forth the effort. You may use the Growth Mindset in Math poster below to build growth mindset dialogue. “The difference between successful and unsuccessful students is less about the content they learn and more about their mindsets.” Jo Boaler
- Use formative assessment to find out what math skills students need through interviews, observations or tests. Do not time math tests, as this is the number one way to build math anxiety. Tests should be short and the students told to try their best. The test should only be used for your formative assessment. Do not give it back to the students with an F! What is the F doing to this girl’s math mindset?
- Use the formative assessment to provide small group instruction where students are appropriately challenged on the skills they need. All students need challenge, even those students working at higher math levels. Read more about differentiated guided math and planning small group math lessons
- Celebrate students’ mistakes, because our brains grow when we make mistakes! A student handed in a math paper and said she didn’t make one mistake. I apologized to her and told her I would give her some more challenging math next time.
To alleviate math anxiety we need to build a strong math mindset in our students. It’s not about the grades, but about the effort. Math aptitude is not inborn. All students can learn and love math. Click on the images to download these Growth Mindset in Math posters.