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Strategies to reduce anxiety in mathematics

  • Anxiety remains one harsh reality that our world has not been able to deal with confidently. It is a psychological state that produces excess worry over little, or in the words of the English dramatist, William Shakespeare, much ado about nothing. With mathematics – the science of numbers – the situation tends to be worse over the years. There is no doubt that mathematics education is a critical scientific tool in the growth and development of the science and technology of any nation; as a matter of fact, the science of any country has been known to grow tailored along the lines of the fringes of mathematics education. Thus, there is need to take the education of our children in this science very seriously. Because of the weird numerical jargons as they appear lies the beauty of nations.

    Mathematics anxiety is a serious setback for many children across all grades and levels. Students with mathematics anxiety are slower in learning mathematics than their less anxious peers because they take fewer mathematics classes and get poorer grades in the mathematics classes they do take. Mathematics anxiety has been studied for many years but has recently received renewed attention. Implementation of strategies to reduce mathematics anxiety according to researchers would help improve math achievement for students.

    Mathematics anxiety is the negative emotions that interfere with the solving of mathematical problems. It goes beyond just a dislike for mathematics; students avoid taking mathematics classes and avoid situations in which mathematics will be necessary. There are specific symptoms that account for mathematics anxiety – physical, environmental and intellectual factors. Physical symptoms of mathematics anxiety include increased heart rate, clammy hands, upset stomach, and lightheadedness. There are also some psychological symptoms such as feelings of helplessness and inability to concentrate properly. Also, worry and disgrace also form part of the mental symptoms. Avoiding mathematics classes, not homework, irregular study of mathematics are proven behavioral symptoms. In fact, studies have found a negative relationship between mathematics anxiety and the smooth running of mathematics education. Students’ mathematics anxiety is often based on years of painful experiences with mathematics. 

    Also, some recent studies show that mathematics anxiety origin is a complex one and is a combination of societal, personality and intellectual factors. Low self-esteem, shyness intimidation, and being unable to handle frustration are personality factors while we have the high-performance expectation from parents and bad classroom experiences as societal factors. Intellectual factors are primarily the inability to understand mathematical concepts. Researchers agree that mathematics teachers who are unable to explain concepts adequately, lack patience with students, make intimidating comments, and/or have little enthusiasm for the subject matter frequently produce math-anxious students. Research also indicates that there is a strong negative relationship between math anxiety and test scores.

    It is no longer unknown that mathematics anxiety has been universally recognized as a non-intellectual factor that impedes mathematics performance. Some students who are so bad in mathematics, sometimes have a better understanding of the mathematical concepts, but still perform poorly as a result of anxiety interfering with their ability to solve or attempt mathematical problems. Beilock and others opine that it is the fear experienced when called upon to solve mathematical problems that prevents mathematics-anxious students to use the mathematical knowledge they have got to solve the problems. This implies that they have the knowledge, but the fear prevents them from being able to use their it. Many researchers have reported that mathematics anxiety interrupt students’ performance, reduces working memory and leaves them in a state where they are unable to concentrate in mathematics.

    It is evidently clear that anxiety in mathematics reduces student’s performance to the barest minimum. So, what to do? As you read above, specific strategies can be employed by teachers, parents and students to reduce anxiety in mathematics. Let’s take a closer look at them;

    Develop strong skills and a positive attitude toward math

    Research has proven that mathematics anxiety is a teacher to student legacy unknowingly passed down in classes. The teacher’s attitude towards mathematics usually affects the way the students think about mathematics, and this affects their general mathematics performance, as well as impedes in the education of the children as far as mathematics is concerned. A teacher with mathematics anxiety is most likely to produce a crop of mathematics-anxious students.

    Relate mathematics to real life

    One way to make anything that has to do with learning sticks is by association, especially with the things we are conversant with. Teachers should always tell the students the importance of studying mathematics and how it applies to their everyday living. It should be able to arouse the students’ interest to study mathematics.

    Encourage critical thinking

    Teachers should encourage their students to think critically. Teaching methods that emphasise memorisation and rote repetition instead of understanding can increase students’ mathematics anxiety. Teachers should present mathematics as a tool for thinking and decision-making, and encourage students to think critically.

    Encourage active learning

    Active learning is the best for a student to faster instead of passive learning, according to studies. Thus, teachers have a role to play in ensuring active learning; even at home parents are not left out. Engaging students in thinking, exploring, practising and using knowledge instead of listening verbal descriptions of concepts help the students to improve. Games and other sporting activities should be incorporated into mathematics lessons to aid understanding as the students will feel okay going through other activities as well while they learn. It should be a mix of fun.

    Have realistic expectations

    Parents increase their children’s math anxiety when they have unrealistically high expectations for their success. Parents ought to realise that building skills in mathematics is only achieved with consistency over time. Therefore, they should not put so much pressure on their children. They should allow them to develop gradually with constant guide and encouragement.

    Provide support and encouragement

    Parental encouragement in math has been found to influence children’s attitudes toward math strongly. Parents should encourage their children to succeed in mathematics. Let them know that they can do well in mathematics and provide them with all they need to reach their goals.

    Though it's evident, mathematics anxiety is prevalent among students, following the strategies discussed above, with the involvement of parents, and teachers, the level of the anxiety can be reduced, and students can achieve excellence in mathematics.

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