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Ways To Reduce Math Anxiety in Students

An infinity symbol with equations
(Image credit: Image by Damir Belavić from Pixabay )

For many students, math and anxiety go hand-in-hand. According to a new study, this anxiety can hinder how students study math. 

In the study, researchers found that math-anxious students – even if they are good students overall – spend more time passively studying the textbook than engaging with real-world math problems, which is a better use of study time. 

This study (opens in new tab) confirms what Jeanette Nicholas, a math teacher at Belle Fourche Middle School in Belle Fourche, South Dakota, and many others have long known about the negative role anxiety can play in regard to math. With her students, Nicholas uses a variety of strategies to help students overcome their anxiety and form a more positive relationship with math. 

Inspire Students with Math Anxiety By Showing Them Success 

“They need to see success,” Nicholas says of students who are anxious about math. Nicholas teaches a supplementary math class that offers additional support. To build student confidence, she’ll often have them start off by solving types of problems for which they’ve already demonstrated proficiency. “So if the teacher’s starting a unit on fractions, and I know that she's going to be teaching some concepts like adding and subtracting unlike denominators, we'll go back and review adding fractions with like denominators.” Students then move on to tackle more difficult problems.

Technology can help with this process. Nicholas’ uses Get More Math (opens in new tab), math practice software that lets students track their progress through a color-coded system. For example, when students revisit an old skill, the teaching tool reminds them of their previous mastery. As students learn new skills, they can see their progress, further boosting confidence and dispelling anxiety. “Even if they think, ‘I'm not very good at this,’ they suddenly realize, ‘Hey, I'm getting some points off it,’” Nicholas says. 

Correct Mistakes and Encourage Students Not to Label Themselves as Bad at Math 

In middle school, many students start to form lifelong associations with certain topics and can grow to hate math. “Usually by seventh grade, they know they're not good at math,” Nicholas says. However, encouraging them to try anyhow and providing them with those initial opportunities for simple success can encourage students to change their perceptions of their abilities. 

In addition, it’s important to give real-time feedback and chances to address mistakes. Nicholas favors math learning tools that have students correct the problems they got wrong. She also makes sure to offer extra help to struggling students and encourages peer mentoring as well. “It’s cool to see the students who know how to do that problem, they can help each other,” she says. 

Ultimately, for Nicholas, combatting math anxiety is all about building student self-confidence. With enough practice, this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Erik Ofgang is Tech & Learning's senior staff writer. A journalist, author (opens in new tab) and educator, his work has appeared in the Washington Post, The Atlantic, and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.