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Cut Math Anxiety Out of Your Classroom This Week Without Losing Rigor

Cut Math Anxiety Out of Your Classroom This Week Without Losing Rigor

"I'm just not good at math." We have all heard it before. You may have even said it yourself. About one third of Americans report struggling with math. There is a good chance you have some of these kids in your classroom.

The first question we have to address is, "Is math anxiety real?" As in, is it a real condition that can be relieved by teacher intervention, or is it just a student having low math skills. Thankfully, researches have already addressed this question.  

Math anxiety is real, and we know how it works in the brain. When students are solving problems, math or otherwise, they use working memory. This is like a chalkboard in the brain where people can temporarily "write" information they are using while they problem solve. Children can generally hold about 4 or 5 pieces of information in their working memory. However, some kids can hold more and some kids can hold less.

Researches have found that working memory, not intelligence, is a key predictor for academic success. That is, the more a student can hold in her working memory, the more successful she will be at school. The good news is that working memory can be increased. This is even true for students with ADHD who tend to have smaller working memories. Working memory can be increased physiologically through learning to play a musical instrument and vigorous exercise - not sitting in a desk doing worksheets.

Working memory is highly related to math anxiety because our brains can only store a limited of information at one time. Students with math anxiety are using up some of their storage space with their emotional reaction to the math. Researches have looked at the brains of both students with and without math anxiety while they are performing math tasks. Working memory occurs in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. Emotional responses occur in the amygdala. Students with little or no math anxiety have active prefrontal cortexes and little or no activity in the amygdala while working on math activities. Students with math anxiety have less active prefrontal cortexes and more active amygdalas. This means that students with math anxiety are literally working with less information that students without math anxiety.

So, it has been confirmed that math anxiety is real. We even know how it works. The challenge is to reduce students' emotional response to math in order to increase their working memories. 

I have seen working memory increase instantly as a parent volunteer in my daughters' school. I work with students who are struggling with math, and I am always amazed at how much these kids know when they are working with me. I tell the teachers, "This kid understands this subject." Then, on a test or working with the entire class, the kid falls apart. This is the power of math anxiety, and why we, as teachers, need to address it.

The first thing you can do is give students as many written and visual cues as possible. If instructions are written on the board or on a paper, students will not have to store this information in working memory. It may be a small detail, and I struggled with it as a teacher too, but for kids who only have three "slots" in their working memory, it is important. Also, when possible use pictures to help. Working memory is highly involved in reading, so written instructions might tax a child's working memory as well.

Next, work to build a relationship with students who have math anxiety. Talk about things the child is interested in to build rapport and trust. Smile at the child. Touch the child on the shoulder or arm. There have been several studies that show that when mammals are touched, we perform better at a range of tasks. This was specifically shown in an experiment involving rats running mazes. Research students were told that some of the rats were "smart" while others were "dumb". When the rats ran the maze, the "smart" rats completed it much faster than the "dumb" rats. There was actually no difference in the intelligence of the rats, but the rats labeled as "smart" were touched much more often than the "dumb" rats. So, it was the students, not the rats, determining the success in the maze by which rats they interacted with during the study.

Next, do away with timed tests. These cause extreme trepidation for students already suffering from math anxiety. It even affects them well before and after the test has taken place. If you are teaching a grade that requires memorizing math facts (which is really important for later success) try having the students time themselves as they complete a set number of problems. They can then keep track of how long it took them to complete the problems over time. You could even have students perform traditional timed tests, but if this is done independently (not as an entire class) it will also decrease math anxiety because there are no outside influences to further stress the child. It is also an opportunity to highlight the growth mindset model that is so important in math.

This independent work can be done in a variety of classroom settings. Math stations is a great way to have students moving around the classroom working on different tasks. If you have the freedom, you could also set up your classroom using the personalized learning model. In this model, students are all working on different tasks depending on their needs and interest. 

Another model I especially like is the problem solving method of math instruction. This method was actually created in the United States, but never caught on here. Teachers from Japan visited the United States in the 1980s and took it back to their country where it has flourished. The principle is that in order to learn math, students have to do most of the thinking - not the teacher. 

The way I like to use this method is to work as an entire class to generate a list of what we know about a specific topic. We also talk about what we would need to know to solve a problem within this topic. For example, if we are solving multiplication equations we would need to know the factors of the problem. Once we have generated our list the students work either independently or in a small group to complete one problem. Not a worksheet of ten problems, but one problem. However, not every student has the same problem. Students are given a problem that will be challenging, but attainable. They are also required to show their thinking, but it is much less overwhelming when it is just one problem.

When students believe they have successfully completed their assigned problem, they bring the page to the teacher. The teacher then asks questions to understand the students' thinking. If there is a misconception or a calculation mistake, the goal is to get the student to see it. The student then returns to her desk to revise her work. This process is repeated until the problem has been solved correctly. Then, if there is still time in the math block, the next problem in the series is presented. Depending on the student it may be a slightly more difficult problem or a similar problem.

My final suggestion, is that we stop pushing kids to tackle the next grade's math concepts before they have a firm grasp of the previous grades' concepts. Just because a student is in the third grade, does not mean that he is ready for third grade math. This pushing without a strong foundation can bring out math anxiety in children, compounding the effect of low math skills. Instead, meet your students where they are. The beautiful thing about math centers is that you can meet with small groups of students and work on completely different skills with each group. 

I understand that this is a lot of work for the teacher. That is why I try to provide teachers with the materials they need to put in children's hands in my Teachers pay Teachers and Teacher's Notebook stores. It is also why I am in favor of school districts investing in a curriculum instead of having teachers develop their own materials. We need to give teachers all of the tools they need to be successful, so they can prepare their students to be successful.

Hopefully this article gave you some ideas about what math anxiety is and how it affects math performance. I hope you also got some ideas about how you can help your students overcome math anxiety. If you are looking for some next steps I recommend...

- sharing this article with parents. They have a strong influence on their children's level of math anxiety.

- talking to your students about their math anxiety. A simple survey will let you know who in your class is struggling.

- meeting with your team to share resources, so you can all reach each student where she is in math.

- allowing students to work with a partner and talk through math problems.

- commenting below with ideas you have used to decrease math anxiety in your classroom.

- visiting my Teachers pay Teachers store to get materials to make your job easier. 

If you are teaching math facts, I especially recommend my Fact Practice books for both addition/subtraction and multiplication/division. This are independent books that use models and patterns to help students memorize math facts. They are a great way for students to practice math facts independently in or outside of school.

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