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7 Reasons behind Math Anxiety and How to Prevent It

This article lists some of the major factors that contribute to math anxiety in students and gives helpful ideas for teachers to motivate children to study math and to prevent math anxiety.

  1. A major factor in the development of math anxiety and dislike towards math in students is the way the teachers feel about math. It is well known that good teachers love the subject they are teaching. On the other hand, if the teacher feels negative towards math, it probably shows up when in his or her teaching and affects the students similarly.

    So one very important factor in motivating children to study math is that you as the teacher stay positive about math – if possible, enthusiastic! Now, that may be hard if you feel differmotivateently. This article on math anxiety and math myths can be helpful. As an adult, you can analyze your past experiences, beliefs, and feelings, and work consciously to change those.

    If you really hate math, you can also explain to your child (if she's older) how you feel, where and how it originated (probably experiences in your own schooling), and how you are trying hard to change that. That might help her then not to adopt all your emotions.

  2. One of the most important things is that the teacher should not put down a wrong answer. Instead, mistakes should be VALUED, because they actually help our brains GROW. Ask the student who has a wrong answer, "Please can you explain how you came up with that?" In a classroom, a teacher can ask, "Did someone else get the same result as you? OK. Did somebody get a different result? OK, we have two (or three) different answers here. Let's figure them out." Wrong answers are valuable! Everyone in the classroom can learn from the different answers and the solution processes. Sometimes, a wrong answer is only wrong because of a calculation mistake, but was perhaps achieved by a different reasoning process, and the process itself is valuable.

  3. Take the emphasis off of tests and avoid timed tests. Tests are a part of school but they shouldn't be the ultimate goal. The TRUE goals of school mathematics are that the students be able to use math in real life and that they are prepared to higher education. Tests, especially timed tests, are one of the main reasons for math anxiety in children. Please read also my article Should you use timed tests for math facts?

  4. Don't present math as an unlearnable, difficult subject, because it is NOT that. Children with normal intelligence CAN learn ALL the math presented in the grade school curriculum (and that has been proven by scientists). If teachers or other adults tell a child that he or she cannot learn math or "is not good at math", children believe that. That causes them to develop a "fixed mindset" towards their intelligence and learning, believing their "smarts are fixed" and cannot be changed. It is our responsibility as teachers and parents to NOT give such messages to any child, and help them develop a GROWTH mindset – that by working at it they WILL learn the material and their brains WILL grow from the struggling process!


  5. Photo courtesy of Patrick Gibling

    Show children that math is a CREATIVE subject. One of the reasons for math anxiety is that math is often taught as "There is only ONE way to do this, and you need to do learn it and do it right." Math is presented as "given from above," without any room for variability or creativity. Yet, that is not true! Learning math is more similar to learning music or art than it is to learning history or biology. The basic facts of math (or music) are true and do not change, BUT the way we solve math problems presents a LOT of variability!

    Students can be much more motivated if they are given open-ended problems to solve. Granted, this kind of teaching style requires a more planning from the teacher. See also my article From CLOSED math problems (with one answer) to OPEN ones.

  6. Find good reasons to study math! Students are more motivated when they realize where all math is needed. Point out the everyday applications of math to students. For example, basic math such as estimating prices and totals (when shopping), fractions (in cooking), decimals (calculating with money), and measuring skills (sewing, woodwork) are very needful in everyday life. Percents, large numbers, and basic statistics are essential in order to understand information in newspapers and schoolbooks. As adults, we have to calculate and file taxes for the year, compare payment methods, figure out loans and home budgets, etc.

    And where do you need algebra, trigonmetry, calculus, and such "higher math"? Chiefly, if the student wants to study science, electronics, commerce, physics, math, medicine or various other fields in the college or university. Algebra also develops logical thinking and problem solving skills. The crucial point here is that many youngsters in ninth or tenth grade don't YET know what they will do after school. Therefore, if there is any chance that they might want to study one of these fields, it is advisable to take algebra, geometry, and so on in high school.

  7. Teach the student make summary notes to prepare for an exam. Many students don't know the power that lies in making your own summary notes. Making summary notes is extremely useful for grouping and organizing material so that you'll understand the relationships between the concepts better. It's superb for memorizing large quantities of material, such as in biology or in chemistry, but also useful in math. Children may actually need to be explicitly taught how to study/memorize material for an exam.

    Another helpful hint is to make a study schedule when preparing for a test. Scheduling takes off the stress from studying, and ensures it won't be left till the last evening. This habit can help your youngster tremendously in all subjects, and later in life too.



For further study

Coping with math anxiety
A comprehensive article delving into the social & educational roots of math anxiety, math myths, and strategies for success.

Value of mistakes
Brain plasticity – or the huge potential for our brains to grow – means that EVERY student CAN learn math. Students need to have a growth mindset where they value mistakes and see them as opportunities for brain growth and learning.

Should you use timed tests for math facts?

From CLOSED math problems (with one answer) to OPEN ones



Math Lessons menu