Schools Anxiety-busting approaches to mathematics

  • By Andrew Fuller
  • This article was published more than 4 years ago.
  • 10 Jun 2020

Maths is a common source of anxiety. Child psychologist ANDREW FULLER suggests some ways to reduce students’ fears about mathematics.

A change of perspective can be very helpful to students whose anxiety might be stopping them getting to grips with a subject such as maths. One method I use is to compare solving a maths problem to making a cake.

Cooking is a science that relies on maths; the ingredients are the elements and the recipe is the method or formula. Cooking involves combining the correct measurements (volume, weight or amount) of each ingredient to, hopefully, create a delicious final result.

In baking a cake, your ingredients include eggs, flour, sugar and butter. Your method is mixing the ingredients in the correct order, and then baking your cake at the right temperature.

Can you work through a maths problem in the same way you follow the steps in a recipe? Are there different methods you could apply to reach the same result? What would the measurements need to be if you wanted to make a cake that was half, or double, the size?

When we’re terrified, everything looks like a wall of impossibility.

Here are some other ways to reduce students’ anxiety about mathematics:

Thinking and logic. Think small: break maths problems into smaller parts and put them together later. Look at what you can do rather than what you can’t do. When we’re terrified, everything looks like a wall of impossibility. Look at the parts you do understand and make sense of those first. 

Planning and sequencing: Make a first attempt: even though you may feel you have no idea what you are doing, make a start on something. It is often the case that when we try something, we can see why that is the wrong approach and that can suggest a better and different way to start. 

Work backwards: When you don’t understand a maths problem, see if you can find the answer (such as in the back of the book) and work backwards. See if you can work out why that is answer. 

Language and word learning: Write it out. When you get stuck trying to understand a maths question, write out what you think the task is in a sentence. If it still doesn’t make sense, show your teacher. Writing out the problem shows them where you’re stuck and helps them find a way to help you.

Spatial reasoning: Draw it: drawing a maths problem like it is a flow chart can help you to put the problem into steps to be followed (a bit like the steps involved in baking a cake).

Try to be aware of the difference between being stuck and not wanting to do it.

People smarts: Working with someone else who wants to improve in maths can make it more fun. Often you will know how to do things they don’t know how to do and vice versa.

Use YouTube: While your teachers will help, YouTube has lots of clips of teachers and students clearly and helpfully explaining how to solve specific maths problems.

Make this into a personal challenge: You’ve done hard things before – learning to ride a bike, swimming, walking, etc. Use this as a way to challenge yourself to improve. But give yourself the freedom to improve slowly.

Try to be aware of the difference between being stuck and not wanting to do it. It can feel easier sometimes to give up rather than slowly building your skills in something that makes you feel stressed.

If you have ever done a jigsaw puzzle, you know that you start putting the bits that make sense together, leaving the harder bits for later. Mathematics can be like that, too.

Perceptual motor learning: Get up and walk about. When you feel stressed or stuck, it is good to shake off the anxiety. Go for a quick walk or run before settling back down to tackle a problem.

Of course, the strategies mentioned in this paper don’t only apply to young people. They may also help some adults. Good luck!

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