Math Anxiety and Strategies for Making Numbers Fun

Math anxiety, a feeling of discomfort or even panic when working with numbers, doesn’t just affect performance on exams. It can prevent students from putting effort into classes and from pursuing opportunities and careers involving math, Johns Hopkins University professor Lisa Feigenson, PhD, found in her 2018 study.

This issue has a significant impact on efforts to develop STEM programs across the United States, according to Gina Picha, an instructional coach in Austin, Texas. The success of such programs is contingent upon being interested and confident in math, Education Week reports.

Children as young as 5 years old can suffer from math anxiety, Feigenson reported. The phenomenon does not correlate with reading level, socioeconomic status, or overall intelligence, according to Sian Beilock, a cognitive scientist and president of Barnard College. Rather, math anxiety is often a consequence of repeated exposure to timed tests, says Jo Boaler, PhD, a math education professor at Stanford University.

When students experience math anxiety, it impedes their working memory where math facts are stored. Even high achievers with a robust working memory — and therefore strong mathematic potential — tend to display some of the most acute levels of math anxiety.

The good news is educators can take steps to mitigate this apprehension. Here are two research-backed activities teachers can pursue to make math less scary and more fun: 

After-School Clubs Focused on Math Games
An eight-week extracurricular math enrichment program offered to elementary children can significantly reduce their levels of math anxiety, according to Feigenson’s research. Encouraging children to associate math with experiences outside the classroom helps them see it as a fun activity. High-energy, hands-on activities with friends resulted in reduced math anxiety, the study shows. For more information on this approach, visit BedTimeMath.org.

Number Talks
Instead of tasks oriented around worksheets and textbooks, an increasingly popular pedagogical method called “number talks” helps develop mental math skills in a fun and intellectually stimulating way. The approach also improves “number sense,” a broad skillset that includes the ability to efficiently compare numbers and to understand number symbols, among other abilities. Boaler encourages teachers to use number talks to help alleviate math anxiety. For more information, explore her book, What’s Math Got to Do With It? How Parents and Teachers Can Help Children Learn to Love Their Least Favorite Subject.

Number talks can be used as warm-ups or as full-length lessons within themselves. Visit http://bit.ly/2sdNnG5 to see how Katy Arrillaga, a second grade math teacher at Ruus Elementary School in Hayward, Calif., leads her class in a number talk about the addition problem 59 + 37. Students perform mental calculations and then discuss their answers to the problem, analyzing individual methods they used to arrive at a solution. The link also contains a pre- and post-talk in which Arrillaga and the school’s math coach Mia Buljan discuss best practices for facilitating this teaching method.

These innovative approaches are proven methods for incorporating play and participation to reduce anxiety and make math education more fun, both for teachers and students.