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Mathematics’ anxiety is real!

Maths’ Anxiety is a real condition; it even has its own scientific name, Arithmophobia or Numerophobia, which is literally the fear of anything to do with numbers. As many of you know, Mathematics is my passion and I am finding that more and more students exhibit the symptoms of Maths’ Anxiety.

I found the following three definitions:

Maths’ Anxiety has been defined as, “feelings of tension and anxiety that interfere with the manipulation of numbers and the solving of mathematical problems in a wide variety of ordinary life and academic situations. Maths’ Anxiety can cause one to forget and lose one’s self-confidence.” – Tobias, S. 1993.

Mark H Ashcraft, the chair of the department of Psychology at the University of Nevada, says that it can be described as, “a feeling of tension, apprehension, or fear that interferes with Maths performance.”

Another definition of Maths’ Anxiety is, “the panic, helplessness, paralysis and mental disorganization that arises among some people when they are required to solve a mathematical problem.” – Tobias and Weissbrod, 1980.

It is believed that the cause of Maths’ Anxiety is because of a bad experience, like being punished for failing a Maths’ test or being embarrassed after answering a question incorrectly in the Maths’ class.

Teachers must not downplay the impact they have on their students, if the teacher has a love for Maths and helps the students to see its beauty, the students’ anxiety will be reduced. Students need humour in their lessons. Teachers should be telling funny stories or showing Maths cartoons and engaging the students in the learning process. Students learn Maths in the doing by actively partaking, not through passive learning that is teacher-centred. Cooperative group work with an incentive, like a slab of chocolate, creates an atmosphere where the best learning can happen.

Parents can influence their children’s perception of Maths. If the parent hated Maths or had Maths’ Anxiety, this can be passed down to the child.  Adults associate Maths with pain and frustration. Bills, Income Tax and Unforeseen Expenses. Maths at home should be fun, it should be used in cooking, in sports, home repairs and even family board and card games.

Possibly, the biggest contributor to such anxiety is timed assessments. Unfortunately, these are, at this stage, not going away and what we are teaching towards in Grade 12 – two pen-and-paper, three-hour examinations.

Symptoms of Maths’ Anxiety may be physical or psychological and may include (but not be limited to) any of the following:

Physical: Nausea, shortness-of-breath, sweating, heart palpitations, increased blood pressure.

Psychological: Memory loss, paralysis of thought, loss of self-confidence, negative self-talk, Maths avoidance, isolation (thinking you are the only one who feels this way).

Positivity around Maths is essential. A student can study as much as they want and be prepared for an assessment, but if they are not confident or do not feel positive about Maths, there is no way to access their knowledge. The vicious cycle of Maths’ Anxiety begins,

For this reason, we need to bust the following Maths Myths:

Myth One: You have to be born with a mathematical brain

Learning Maths is like learning a language, it takes time, practise, continuous use, a good teacher and a committed student.

Myth Two: You cannot be creative and be good at Maths

Maths is found in Literature. In 1855, Lewis Carroll author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass (1871) was initially a mathematical lecturer. He produced many pamphlets and ten books on mathematical topics.

Maths is found in Art. Leonardo Da Vinci has long been associated with the golden ratio: Phi, 1,618 and  M.C. Escher, is known for his repeating patterns of interlocking motifs, tessellations of the Euclidean and the hyperbolic plane.

Maths is found in Music.  Various biographical writings show that Mozart the musician was also a lover of Mathematics. He is said to have jotted mathematical equations in the margins of some of his compositions.

Myth Three: Girls are not as good as boys are at Maths

This too is because of the preconceived notion that it was not acceptable for women to be mathematicians. Florence Nightingale was in fact a Mathematician and a Nurse.

Some hopefully helpful tips to manage Maths’ Anxiety

Learn stress management and relaxation techniques – deep breathing and meditation that help you to relax in any stressful situation.

Combat negative thinking – replace those negative thoughts with confidence-building affirmations (“I know this”, “I’m prepared” and “I can do this”).

Visualize yourself succeeding – imagine yourself being relaxed doing Maths and during a test confidently solving the problems.

Do the “easiest” problems first – build up your confidence by first doing those problems that you “know” best. It will help you relax when you tackle the “more challenging” questions.

Channel your stress into something else – squeeze a stress ball like crazy during the test.

Start preparing early – “cramming” the material quickly, will result in forgetting it quickly too. If you practise the material over a stretch of time, you will have a better understanding of it and are less likely to forget it when under stress.

Take care of yourself – eating and sleeping well helps your body and mind function to their fullest potential.

Try to understand the “why” of Maths concepts rather than memorizing – the first thing to go when you are under stress is your short-term memory. This is one reason it is so important to understand that Maths is not just a set of rules that you have to memorize but that each concept builds on what came before. If you understand the reason behind the rules, you will remember the concepts better and be able to apply them in many different types of problems (not just ones you have seen before).

Find a support group – WhatsApp your teacher or form a WhatsApp group to study for assessments.

Reward yourself for hard work – after completing some difficult homework or an assessment, it is time to give yourself a break. Have a chocolate… or a party!

For extra calming techniques, see the following websites:

Math is a wonderful thing

Math is a really cool thing

So, get off your “ath” let’s do some math, math, math, math, math… —                          

Jack Black in School of Rock (rocker/teacher)

Mrs Lara-Ann Koch
Deputy Principal – High School