Is math anxiety real? When your child or student comes home and says, “I don’t like math” or, “I can’t do math,” are they honestly having trouble with the material or looking for an excuse to avoid the work?
According to decades of research, math anxiety is real. An estimated 17 percent of American students have some form of math anxiety. More formally, we often define mathematics anxiety as the stress of learning and participating in the mathematics classroom or situations that require math. It is seen as a kind of fear of failure, threat to self-esteem, or discomfort that disrupts cognitive processing by compromising ongoing activity in working memory.
How does this anxiety manifest itself? Your child may tell you about any of the following types of symptoms: dry mouth, panic, fear, uneasiness, heart palpitations, nausea, sweaty hands or feet, muscle tension, shortness of breath, inability to be still and calm. For some students this anxiety can feel like a heart attack. The physical feelings are real.
Parents and teachers unwittingly nurture math anxiety by sending mixed or even negative messages about math: for example, it’s something to fear; or it should be done quickly, i.e., true math proficiency can be measured by timed tests.
Fostering a Growth Mindset
Why I am interested in the topic? I suffered from math anxiety that started in second grade. I could recall and use algorithms and had a good number sense. I just could not work quickly. I was afraid of making mistakes. Timed tests in second grade seemed to teach me that I was dumb. I started to lose interest in math and in school. What I know now is that not being able to compute quickly doesn’t mean you have a math disability.
Many mathematicians cannot compute quickly; in fact, it is common for mathematicians to be slow, deep thinkers. Some professors and research scientists even have dyscalculia, a learning disability that makes comprehension difficult. Understanding numbers, learning how to manipulate them, and learning facts in mathematics are all difficult for someone with dyscalculia.
The point is, we need to stop equating fast with good. Calculations and computing have high demands on working memory. Students need to hear messages about "growth mindset"—how the brain can grow more from mistakes than getting it all right. The opposite is a "fixed mindset"—the idea that getting it wrong means a student is "dumb" or incapable of doing the material. Mistakes, or going slowly to figure things out, do not equal "dumb."
Parents and teachers should instead encourage students to take risks and learn from mistakes. We all need to create spaces to tackle problems, make mistakes, and learn. The courage to take risks and make mistakes is very powerful and results in greater success than if a student is innately brilliant in math.
Beating Math Anxiety
How do we, as parents or teachers, conquer math anxiety in our children and students? We should be telling them the truth: anyone can do math!
Sian Beilock, Ph.D., is a research scientist (and currently president of Barnard College) who has extensively studied anxiety. Here are some of my favorite techniques from Beilock’s book, Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal about Getting It Right When You Have To, and some of my suggestions about how parents can help a child reframe the experience of math anxiety.
- Practice under mild pressure—Study under the same conditions as the event. Is it timed? Do you get a “cheat” sheet?
- Outsource your cognitive load—Sometimes we need help in making it through steps. Write down steps as you go instead of trying to remember them.
- Reinterpret your reactions—This reframing technique helps you identify that the sweaty palms, heart palpitations, etc. are not all bad. You get similar feelings when you meet a cute new person. We probably all have some of those symptoms when we go to our favorite performance.
- Organize your knowledge—organize what you do know in a way that makes sense to you. For example, I always park in the same row at the grocery store. Take a burden off working memory by using and practicing with your organization scheme.
- Pause your “choke”—walk away for a few minutes from a challenging task. If you have ever struggled on a math problem, you know your brain can get stuck seeing the problem in the same way. Either mentally or physically walking away can help the brain let go and come back fresh for the challenge.
Math is everywhere, and every student deserves a chance to learn it. Parents and teachers need to acknowledge that students from many levels of math can and do experience math anxiety. Identifying the problem is the first step to helping students reframe their anxiety and gain the courage to doing math—at any age.
Michelle L.W. Bower, Ph.D., is professor of mathematics at Landmark College in Vermont, the first college exclusively for students with learning disabilities (including dyslexia and dyscalculia), ADHD, ASD, and executive function challenges.
Motivating Students to Achieve Through High Expectations
by Dr. Manju Banerjee
Expectations serve as a powerful framework for a child’s growth and development—they show children what the adults in their lives believe they are capable of achieving. This belief in their abilities instills them with the confidence to try to reach these benchmarks. When parents, teachers and coaches encourage students to try their best and not give up even when the bar is high, they instill confidence. Most importantly, they instill a belief in the student that they are capable of achieving these high expectations. This is called a growth mindset. Belief in high expectations by people who matter to students builds their confidence.
When teachers set high expectations, it can be a motivator for students to challenge their pre-conceived notions of ability. If not carefully articulated, it can also foster a fixed mindset. A fixed mindset is where students believe that they have a limited intellectual ability or fixed capacity for learning and shy away from trying to reach high expectations because of a fear of failure. When teachers and instructors do not communicate these high expectations as goal posts they believe that students can achieve, then students themselves start setting low bars for themselves. In my three decades of professional experience with college students, I often hear stories of students with learning and attention issues being ignored in the classroom because their teachers had written them off. The teachers did not want to embarrass the students by asking them challenging questions. Students pick up on such cues quickly and start believing they are less than their peers.
Meeting and Exceeding High Expectations
In my role as Vice President for Educational Research and Innovation at Landmark College, I have been amazed by what our students have achieved in their independent study research projects. Recently, I had the honor of witnessing two of our students present a virtual reality (VR) project – Passage to Hunza – at our LD (Learning Differences) Innovation Symposium at MIT in Boston, MA. Computer Science students worked with a student from Fine Arts to create a VR platform that sought to introduce basic concepts in statistics such as correlation through a video game.
Students who learn differently are capable of achieving and meeting high expectations given the opportunity and an alternative path to do so. They are just as capable as their peers; but someone has to believe in them and has to convey that belief in a meaningful way.
When we as educators set high goals and give students the opportunity and support needed to demonstrate successful outcomes, students start believing in us AND themselves. It changes lives. As an educator who works primarily with students who learn differently, I see this every day. A recent Center for American Progress (CAP) study from the National Center for Education Statistics found that when teacher expectations for mainstream students were high, students’ performance was also high. The same applies for students who learn differently. For students to believe in high expectations, they must be authentic, sincere, and anchored in reality. No expectation is too high if it promotes student’s confidence and desire to not give up. High expectations and positive experiences beget successful outcomes, while low expectations and negative experiences lead to a sense of dejection and unsuccessful outcomes for students.
There are many ways for educators who work with students who learn differently to set high expectations and facilitate a positive outcome. The following is a list of recommendations based on the Landmark College approach to setting high expectations without turning off students:
- Advisors start by building a relationship of trust with the student.
- Faculty create a “safe space to fail” while holding high academic expectations.
- Faculty show students the small steps needed to achieve high goals.
- Students know that the entire campus community is rooting for them to succeed.
- Students are held accountable for their actions and are expected to take ownership of their learning goals.
At Landmark College, high expectations are the norm. Students come to realize that they can actually achieve their dreams of a college degree because it is expected they will. Perhaps most importantly, students start to believe in themselves, because everyone else shares the same belief. Every student deserves the opportunity to learn and succeed in their own way. High expectations by parents and educators makes the path a bit easier.
Manju Banerjee, Ph.D. is the Vice President of Educational Research and Innovation at Landmark College, one of the only accredited colleges in the US designed exclusively for students who learn differently
Ask the Expert: Why Sports and LD Can Lead to Excellence
The Landmark College associate professor discusses the potential benefits of athletics for students with learning differences.
It’s well-documented that students with learning differences (LD) and executive function disorder are just as smart as their peers, and can reach their potential with the right accommodations. However, a growing body of research shows not only that LD affects athletic performance, but that sports can help students manage their LD. In fact, a synergy of athletic and academic modifications can have an immense impact on a student’s success.
Extracurricular activities give students a chance to apply the learning strategies they’re developing to a setting outside the classroom. My own work as a faculty member at Landmark College and the experiences of my colleague John Wood, a resident dean who’s coached many athletes at Landmark, have shown this difference firsthand: The graduation rate of student-athletes is 62 percent higher than students who aren’t athletes. We stress the importance of extracurricular activities for several reasons:
- Structure: Belonging to an athletic club or team provides students with a reliable schedule, and students must develop a routine in order to make time for school work and other priorities. It’s well-documented that free time is the bane of students with executive function disorder. Practice schedules leave students with less unstructured time on weeknights and weekends, providing form and routine to their days and weeks.
- Goal clarity: Team and individual sports provide students with the chance to set, meet and modify goals. Not only does this teach goal setting, those goals can translate to the classroom, as well, since students have to maintain a certain GPA in order to play sports. The urgency of this benchmark is often more meaningful, and thus more motivating, for the student.
- Exercise: At Landmark, we encourage exercise even for students who aren’t necessarily athletes due to its vast benefits. Neuropsychiatrist John Ratey frequently cites research that says 30 minutes of moderately rigorous physical activity can improve cognitive flexibility and executive functions. There is encouraging evidence, requiring further study, pointing to other types of physical activities that improve executive functions. Furthermore, exercise improves sleep quality and eating habits, both of which are correlated to heightened academic performance.
When parents, educators and coaches learn that a student struggles with executive functioning disorder, their first step is often to discourage extracurricular activities so the student can spend extra time focusing on schoolwork. Not only is this an inadvertent punishment for having an LD that’s gone misunderstood or undiagnosed, but it’s an opportunity lost to help that student’s academic performance through athletics. The perseverance and grit it takes to persist in school with an LD can often power the same kind of determination on the field—another point of synergistic interaction.
High school and college coaches serve as role models and educators. They’re responsible for shaping the lives of students as they grow athletically, socially and academically; therefore, they should understand the basics of the learning process and work to be attuned to how players learn. This includes the ability to recognize the signs of LD and the need for accommodation. For instance, Coach Wood points out that at Landmark College, an athlete with attention or memory challenges may be called on to re-verbalize or repeat the steps of a particular drill or technique. This provides repetition for the team and ensures the student understands what’s being asked.
Many students excel in their sport when they’re younger because they’re just learning the individual skills of the sport: it’s pure play. The experience gets more challenging as they advance, and competition and rules become more intense and sophisticated. Here, they can run up against their LD—maybe there’s a difficulty remembering multiple plays or following a coach’s instructions yelled over a crowd. Some become discouraged and believe they can no longer be an athlete.
While there are many students out there that have given up, there’s a lot of hope. We see it all the time when someone rediscovers the athlete within themselves. It’s a defining moment in their growth as they find new tools to help them shape and manage their own life and learning. If we bring this knowledge to coaches, and provide them with a crash course in education, brain function and neurodiversity, they’ll be better prepared to help students achieve on the court and in the classroom, and consequently change the lives of thousands of students.
After all, there’s an athlete in everyone.
Rebecca Matte is an associate professor of core education at Landmark College, whose student population consists entirely of students with learning differences such as dyslexia, ADHD or autism.