11 Jul

Serious Anxiety!

One of my students becomes extremely nervous when asked questions during the lesson, even simple ones like “What’s 5 X 6?” She becomes a little tense and shaky, and makes very very silly mistakes even though she knows the answer. I’ve tried to be more encouraging and not put her on the spot, while helping her get to the answer but that hasn’t really helped and her parents have observed that about her as well. I really need advice about this situation.

Your student is experiencing something called Maths Anxiety. It’s a well documented and researched phenomenon.

There are many books centred on this challenge, but here are some useful points:


  • You need to understand why this student is so anxious about doing maths. There are a variety of reasons why maths anxiety occurs and some awareness for yourself and your student can only help the situation.


  • Often maths anxiety is developed at school, as a result of learning from teachers who are anxious about their own abilities in certain topics. Common examples of areas where teachers are often incompetent or semi-competent are fractions, long division etc.  Teachers who don’t understand much about a topic, consciously or not, discourage questions and impose fear on students to prevent them asking questions which could expose their ignorance. What is the situation with this student’s teacher?


  • Some studies show that in many ways it is less the actual teaching and more the attitudes and expectations of the teacher/tutor or parents that count. Find out what her parents expect and what beliefs they reinforce. Do they regularly say things like “It’s ok, you’re just not so good at maths”? What do you expect from the student as a tutor? Do you have positive beliefs and expectations about the student’s maths improvement?


  • Math is usually taught as a right or wrong subject, which it is some of the time. It can seem to students as if getting the right answer is the only thing that counts, so when put on the spot to answer a question it seems that much is at stake and they get anxious.
  • Maths is often taught as if there’s only one way to approach a problem and any other approach is wrong even if the right answer is reached.Try having discussions around the idea that understanding the concepts is what’s important. Encourage her to try, to experiment, to find algorithms/processes that work for her, and to take risks not just rote learn. However, a large part of math will still consist of memorization, repetition, and mechanically performed operations. Times tables are one example where this is unavoidable so just bear that in mind.


  • By focussing more on processes and approach, you enable the student to make mistakes, but not ‘fail at math’. Perhaps discuss the solutions before the answer is given? Younger students hate to be wrong and hate being in situations where being wrong might cause them embarrassment.


  • The act of being involved should also help. Encourage the student to share her thinking process and justify answers out loud or in writing as she does calculations. With more of an emphasis on process and discussion/comprehension rather than answers you should be able to alleviate some math anxiety.


  • Students learn best when maths is explained in the context of their lives. In regard to maths anxiety, this can help because it brings a familiarity to the mathematics. She should be engaged in exploring, inferring, and thinking, as well as in rote learning of rules and procedures.


  • For sufficiently mature students, keeping a maths journal is recommended. Have her think about her own understanding and specific concepts. What does she like? What has improved? What is still a challenge? What was her most recent mini-achievement?


Some general suggestions for preventing math anxiety include:

  • Try to accommodate lessons to her learning style
  • Test her knowledge in a variety of ways/environments
  • Make her have a good time. Figure out ways to create positive experiences so she starts to associate goodness with maths instead of fear.
  • Avoid relating self-esteem to maths success
  • Emphasize that It’s Ok To Be Wrong and everyone makes mistakes in mathematics – even you.
  • Encourage the student to have some input in evaluating her own progress; help her create a positive self awareness.
  • Focus on the thinking and comprehension process and not just rote manipulation of formulas


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