Robyn Wise

There’s No Such Thing as a “Math Person”: Helping Students with Math Anxiety

Math Teacher, Robyn Wise, connecting with a student.

We hear it from students every day: “I’m not a math person,” or “I’m bad at this.” There’s often an assumption that math is challenging – and yes, sometimes it IS challenging for everyone at one time or another.  Ultimately, though, everyone has the ability to think mathematically. It just looks different for each of us. For those students who struggle with math anxiety, it’s critically important they get the support they need and deserve in order to be successful.

What is Math Anxiety?

When faced with math problems in school or everyday life, math anxiety blocks working memory and leads to avoidance, negative self-talk, and feelings of failure – even when a student has the knowledge to solve them. For people with math anxiety, even a seemingly simple problem can make their heart race, palms sweaty, and brain freeze. Sometimes the anxiety is rooted in a negative past experience; maybe the student was embarrassed after making a mistake in front of others or felt pressure and panicked during a timed test.

In any case, math anxiety lowers a student’s confidence and leads them to believe they are incapable of doing math of any kind, no matter the level of difficulty.  Students with dyscalculia are at an even greater risk of developing significant math anxiety, especially if their learning challenges have gone unaddressed.

How We Address Math Anxiety in the Classroom

Our goal is always to reduce tension and boost confidence so that our students are more available for learning. There are lots of ways we do this naturally, for example breaking down math problems into manageable chunks or using relatable, real-world examples in our teaching.

We Created an Ungraded Pre-Algebra Class

We created and offer an ungraded pre-algebra class because we found that removing the fear of a “bad grade” allows students to be more open to defining their level of learning through feedback. This shift in focus from product to process has been life-changing for some of our students, altering their perspective on math for good.

Focus on Building a Growth Mindset

By far the most valuable intervention when it comes to math anxiety is our focus on growth mindset: instilling in our students the belief that with determination, perseverance and an open mind, change is not only possible but inevitable. The student who says “I can’t do it” has already limited themselves. Instead, we work daily and diligently to help students to stay positive in the face of academic adversity – “Maybe I can’t do it right now, or this way, but I can learn” – which allows them to accept help and achieve success. This approach is consistent with McLean’s Abilities Model that focuses on the “cans” and not the “cannots.” We recognize that while math may be a source of anxiety for a student, it doesn’t have to be. And – like any other learning or life challenge – it doesn’t define them as learners or as people.

Robyn Wise, 8th Grade Math Teacher, and Pioneer of Ungraded Math