How to Deal With Math Anxiety

Settling into the first week of classes is always a mixed bag; some subjects are exciting, bringing with them a sense of wonder and anticipation. Others are some of the subjects that we may have put off until the very last semester, due to the fear of intensity and difficulty. For myself, that subject is math. I definitely have a healthy fear of going through this subject; I’ve never been mathematically inclined, and seeing my partner, a creative type like myself, struggle through it didn’t help that fear. 

Math anxiety doesn’t just make students choke on tests. It changes their approach to learning the subject in ways that set them up for ongoing failure.

A new study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology suggests math-anxious students choose less-effective ways to study, like rereading textbooks instead of working through real problems. This, in turn, can make them less prepared for exams, and heighten the risk that students will “freeze” on the math test itself.

“The anxiety that happens in the moment [is] really robbing you of the ability to focus and do your best, and that’s one of the reasons why math anxiety was often related to poor performance. But we knew that wasn’t the whole story,” said Jalisha Jenifer, lead author of the study and postdoctoral research fellow at Barnard College of Columbia University. “Now we’re able to start pinpointing the way in which highly math-anxious people also … walk in less prepared.”

FRCC Math faculty Debi Martin (left) and Rita Quintana (right) help a student during the Math and Science mixer, held on February 4th of 2020. Photo by Ezra Ekman.

While students who are initially low-performing are at a higher risk of developing math anxiety, the study focused on students in Advanced Placement calculus courses. Even among these students, whose placement puts them at an above average performance in math, those with high math anxiety were less likely to study efficiently than those with low levels of anxiety about the subject.

“Solving math problems can help you to understand where gaps may be in your knowledge; you may not notice those things if you’re just reviewing practice problems,” Jenifer said. “Without challenging yourself in those ways … you may never practice in the ways that you need for the exam.”

This notion was echoed from FRCC’s own professors and academics, such as Zach Bakko, an Online Supplemental Instruction Leader (O.S.I.L.) for the math department based out of the Westminster campus. Bakko spoke on his personal experience as a counselor. 

“From my experience as a supplemental instruction leader (SIL) for the past 5 years (in both statistics and math for liberal arts), the anxiety that comes with any sort of math can be a significant roadblock for students and their goals,” Bakko said. “What has worked for a majority of my students coping with the anxiety is to first ask for help: which can be a daunting task within itself. Asking for help is often the hardest step: and it’s important to remember, everyone at FRCC wants you (the student) to succeed. Once help is initiated, the student often starts to feel more in control of their relationship with math and starts to build skills that help them in their success. My advice (with any sort of math or science) is practice, practice, practice! Math and science are concepts that are applicable, and the ability to practice the variations of problems, learn through trial-and-error and be patient with oneself are crucial in the student’s success.  When I first started FRCC back in 2016, I was a terrible math student; the reason being is that I doubted my abilities and didn’t ask for help. When I took the courageous step to ask for help; success started to flow. It was an ebb and flow and not linear; nonetheless, I started to develop a relationship with math that wasn’t central to anxiety.”

Bakko also spoke on his experience as a student. 

“During my undergraduate studies as a psychology student, I helped students understand why they may have an aversion to math, and the thought process/biological processes that came with learning,” Bakko said. “Now as a graduate student for clinical counseling, I am more focused on helping students cope with the anxieties that come with math, the multicultural diversities that can be barriers to student’s successes, and employing new behaviors that work for the student and their success. Learning and coping are journeys not destinations, and we cannot all do it alone.” 

Monica Geist, a math instructor of 30 years at FRCC, offers her advice. 

“At a bare minimum, students need to be talking to themselves daily, giving their brains positive messages about learning math,” Geist said. “If we tell ourselves and others that we can’t do math, our brain will do just that! Other helpful practices include relaxation techniques (over time) to help bring the nervous system into a calm state, writing and taking practice tests in a simulated testing environment (no cell phones, timed, no distractions, etc.), knowing yourself and how you learn best, and learning techniques to taking a timed test.”

Bakko also added that there are resources available to you, as an FRCC student, on the Westminster Campus. They include, but are not limited to the following:

  • The Math Center (located in the library)
  • Supplemental Instruction (located in the academic success center in the library)
  • Tutoring Services (located in the academic success center in the library)
  • Your Professor 
  • Your Peers
FRCC Westminster’s Math Center in September of 2020. Photo by Sarah McClure

Stressful subjects and classes are unavoidable. Because of this, we must arm ourselves with proper study habits, and utilize the resources given to us in order to successfully venture into the scholastic unknown. 

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