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November 10, 2009

Math Anxiety: Causes and Cures

Nick Diaz

Test anxiety is a common problem for many students, regardless of level – middle, high, or college. At the college level, this is an especially difficult problem for those who are in “developmental” courses. Unfortunately, it is also common to experience test anxiety only in math, and not in other courses.


Mild test anxiety can be a motivational factor; high test anxiety, however, can cause major problems both in learning and in taking tests. Reducing test anxiety is the key for many students in order to become successful in math. Such students need to learn the causes of test anxiety, as well as how to reduce the anxiety that affects their learning and grades.


Several techniques have proved helpful in reducing both math anxiety and math test anxiety. Reducing such anxiety, however, does not guarantee good math grades. It must be coupled with effective study skills and a desire to do well in math. One would think the latter is a given; my many years in math education tell me that is not so.


Recognizing test anxiety


Test anxiety has probably existed for as long as tests have been used to evaluate student performance. Because this is so common, and because it has survived the test of time, test anxiety has been carefully studied over several decades.


Test anxiety is a learned response, I am convinced. A person is not born with it. An environmental situation is what brings about test anxiety. The positive side of this coin is that, because it is a learned response, it can be unlearned.


Math anxiety can be divided into two separate parts: Math test anxiety and numerical anxiety. Math test anxiety involves anticipation, completion, and feedback of math tests. Numerical anxiety refers to everyday situation requiring working with numbers. Math test anxiety is the subject of this column.


The causes of math test anxiety can be different for each student; however, I’ll try to explain them by listing some basic concepts.


The most common situation that high school and college students have reported as a known cause of their math test anxiety is their elementary school math experiences. Simply put, teacher and peer embarrassment become the conditioning experience that causes math test anxiety in some students. Over the years, this test anxiety is reinforced and may still exist as a student grows up.


Many math-anxious students, now 30 or 40 years old, confess to me that they have extreme fear about working math problems on the board.


Causes of math test anxiety:


1.      It is a learned behavior, resulting from expectations of parents, teachers, or other significant people in a student’s life.


2.      It can be caused by the association between grades and a student’s personal worth.


3.      It can develop from fear of alienating parents, family, or friends due to poor grades.


4.      It can stem from a feeling of lack of control, or an inability to change one’s life situation.


5.      It can be caused by student’s embarrassment by other students or teachers when trying to do math problems.


6.      It can be caused by timed tests and the fear of not finishing the test, even when one can do the math.


7.      Most importantly, it can be caused by being placed in math courses above the student’s level of competence.


Myths about math test anxiety


Of these I am convinced. Some of these “myths” may well look like reasonable, well-accepted facts to some. Some items on the list below may well be subject to debate; still, here are the myths, perpetuated by popular culture, but which I totally reject:


1.      Students are born with math-test anxiety.


2.      Math-test anxiety is a neurosis, a mental illness cured only with psychiatric help.


3.      Math-test anxiety cannot be reduced, much less conquered.


4.      Any level of math-test anxiety is bad.


5.      All students who are not prepared have math-test anxiety.


6.      Students with math-test anxiety cannot learn math.


7.      Students who are well prepared will not have math-test anxiety.


8.      Very intelligent students, and students taking high-level courses, do not have math-test anxiety.


9.      Paying attention in class and doing homework automatically reduces all math-test anxiety.


10.   Being told to relax during a test will make any student relax.


11.   Doing nothing about math-test anxiety will make it go away.


12.   Reducing math-test anxiety will guarantee better grades. Not necessarily so!


In my next installment, I’ll bring up some strategies that a student, regardless of level, may use to improve his math-test-taking skills, and reducing math test anxiety.


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