Do the words 'maths test' or 'double mathematics' make your anxiety levels rise?
In Australia, nearly one-third of the secondary school student population report a problem with anxiety, nervousness or fearfulness when doing or thinking about maths. Such anxiety influences their achievement in this subject and even impacts their future education and career choices.
The fear can start as a child in primary school and continue through life until adulthood. Maths questions seem impossible and the thought of having to solve a number problem or do mental calculations can turn fear into phobia.
The problem is both education and life revolve around good mathematical knowledge, the ability to learn and understand maths concepts and the practical application of maths skills.
Along with English, mathematics is the only subject that is compulsory to study until the end of Year 12 — and there's good reason for this. Maths is everywhere. It infiltrates every part of your life, is essential to help you understand the world and to solve day-to-day real life problems. At the very least, you need a basic grasp of mathematics for almost every career.
It's no wonder such a large number of people have a negative association, bordering on a phobia, of maths.
One of the key questions is: can your fear of this subject be beaten?
Maths Tutors and Relevance — You Can Win at Maths
'Who can count to 10?'
From the first day of primary school, and then throughout each year of education, the emphasis people place on mathematical knowledge is drummed into every student.
Focusing in class and listening to the teacher seem like no-brainers when it comes to learning, but if you're suffering from anxiety, it can cause real problems with your ability to understand.
The more anxious you are, the less you understand, making maths class even more stressful.
This 'fear of maths' is not a joke or an excuse to get out of class — and no students should have to put up with it.
Here are 5 of the best ways for students to begin to solve their mathematics phobia.
Maths tutors have the skills and the strategies to get you back on track with your learning. A private maths tutor will individualise their teaching to meet your mathematical needs and help you rebuild confidence in your ability. Many maths tutors understand what it's like to experience problems with learning — this is often why they decide to work as tutors.
Thinking in more concrete ways
Although many mathematical concepts seem abstract, most can be understood by thinking about mathematics through using practical resources and hands-on objects. Relating a seemingly abstract idea to something real and relevant also helps many students.
Read to find out more
On the internet and in bookstores you will find endless information written in easy-to-understand language. Read an article or browse through a book — the author may have explained the number concepts in ways you finally understand.
Know where your problems come from
Ask your teacher or tutor for help to understand what is causing your mental blockages. You may be surprised to realise where your negative concepts originated from.
Make sure you fill the gaps
Quite simply, you will never understand advanced mathematics without the basic skills. Ask your teacher for old textbooks from the previous year levels and use them to check your knowledge and skills. It may be that you missed vital processes with basic integers, early geometry, Year 7 algebra, number sense or even multiplication strategies. It will take time, but if you can fill those gaps you'll be one step closer to improved achievement.
Where Does a Fear of Maths Come From?
If you find yourself uninterested or fearful of mathematics it is useful to work out what triggered it. Perhaps you didn't get along with your Year 9 maths teacher? Maybe those crucial lessons on problem solving strategies coincided with your parents going through a divorce. You might freeze in a test situation. Or it could be that your peers think high achievement is uncool, so you never bothered.
Whatever the reason behind your anxiety with number and fear of maths, once you've pinpointed it, it's never too late to change your negative thinking into a positive approach.
For some children, mathematics is the easiest subject in the curriculum. They just get it!
But for every student who loves manipulating number, there are other students who live in fear of their next maths class.
It can be something as small as being teased for getting questions wrong. This leads to embarrassment, loss of self-esteem and negative feelings. You become reluctant to try. Not trying means you're not making mistakes, but it also means you're not learning.
Eventually, you come to believe maths is your worst subject. Guess what? It is.
The best strategy is to not let this happen. The second best is to recognise you have a problem and work on ways to lift yourself (or your student or child) out of the pit.
Try these techniques to build confidence with mathematics over time:
- Find the things you're good at — praise yourself.
- Reward good attempts, not just successes.
- Never punish yourself for failure.
- Acknowledge your anxiety.
- Actively seek fun revision activities, such as games and puzzles.
Talk about your anxiety with a trusted teacher, your parents or your tutor. Seek their help and support.
What Does the Research Say about Maths Ability?
The brain is amazing. If you've read any research on the brain, you would know it has the ability to grow and shrink and that it's fed by learning, thinking — and mistakes. When people make mistakes, the brain develops further — in positive rather than negative ways. Our brains are learning from those mistakes.
Essentially, those stressful mistakes that cause people problems with anxiety could, instead, actually be working to make the brain smarter. Elbert Hubbard was right!
The greatest mistake a man can ever make is to be afraid of making one.
~ Elbert Hubbard ~
Not everyone can be Einstein, Archimedes or Euclid but, a large number of studies have shown that with the right support, most people will find mathematics accessible and achievable.
One study, by the University of South Australia, proved that an increase in the mathematical confidence of a student has the greatest impact on achievement.
Another study, by Jo Boaler, shows the percentage of the population who experience life long problems with mathematical understanding is as low as 2 per cent. The interesting knowledge gained in this particular study was the impact that time restrictions have on the ability of the brain to function and that by simply allowing a student more time to process concepts, achievement improved significantly.
Learn that Maths can be Fun
Any good teacher or maths tutor will tell you that teaching is all about engaging the student. And to engage the student, the subject and the class have to be seen as both relevant and fun. The keys to success are:
- variety in teaching methods
- taking things step by step
- reduction of pressure to provide perfect answers to all questions
- inclusion of fun maths games for revision purposes.
Teaching and learning resources like the Middle Year Mental Computation (MYMC) Program and Paul Swan books contain a huge number of games for all topics and year levels.
You can also almost have a virtual maths tutor online through mathematical websites such as Topmarks, Math Playground, Mathletics, Coolmath and BBC Bitesize math games. Or have a look around in the App Store for the newest math skills apps.
Having fun is the best way to reduce anxiety as you learn without thinking about it.
Revise or Relearn with a Maths Tutor Online or Face-to-Face
Teaching methods have come a long way from rote memorisation and pages of sums. Maybe you didn't like the subject as a child — but what if you started to study mathematics again as an adult — in your own time and with access to more modern teaching strategies?
If you are just looking to start study again for fun, online sites might be perfect for you. However, if you want a bit more, or if you have to learn and upskill for your job, engaging a private tutor, or working with a maths tutor online is highly recommended.
Let us leave you to ponder a real life mathematical conundrum: Why do we put a circular pizza in a square box and cut it into triangles to eat it?