Counting Our Way Out of Anxiety

Mathematics is still one of the most challenging subjects faced by ordinary grade school and high school students.  It is not uncommon to hear of students who flunk at math not just for because the subject is hard to learn, but also because they are afflicted with what is now called by teachers as — math anxiety.

Math anxiety is referred to as an intense feeling of helplessness or frustration about one’s ability (or lack of it) to accomplish mathematical tasks or solve mathematical problems.  Some who have this “academic malady” claimed that their minds suddenly go blank and they feel terrified once they look at a mathematical question or test.  Many have proclaimed their sworn hate for the subject and have simply resigned to what they consider to be fact — that they cannot learn to do math.

But what does make math difficult, or at least, different?  According to math teachers, their subject of expertise is unlike other courses or subjects taught in school for the following reasons:

1. Math involves the study of various processes. In other subjects, you learn and understand the material without necessarily having to apply it.  In math, you have to learn the lessons or processes such as addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division – and then, you have to move on to a workbook, apply those lessons, and solve math problems.

2. Math is considered to be a linear learning process where one such process is taught and used today,  and is used as part of the lessons of the following day, and so forth.  Teachers say that when you study history, you can learn chapter 6 even without passing through some of the previous chapters.  You can skip some parts of history and choose a specific section as part of the lesson. But in Math, you cannot study algebra without first mastering the four basic mathematical operations.  Given this situation, it is easy to understand why some children who failed to master basic concepts find it hard to learn higher math concepts, and, as a consequence, they tend to develop math anxiety.
3.    Like a foreign language, math must be practiced daily to retain your skills.
There are other reasons why math is very different from other subjects.  But for sure, many children around the world have to grapple with the numbers and concepts that seem like undecipherable codes.  Math anxiety has become so serious that some academicians believe it is one of the causes for school dropouts.   They said that once the student who is struggling with math feels utterly frustrated in learning the concepts and processes. that student may conclude that going to school is futile.  In fact, test anxiety is often linked to the fear of failing math or the fear of actually having to try to solve a mathematical problem.  When a student fails to study or does not prepare sufficiently for an examination, nervousness and helplessness sets in.   But for a student who suffers from math anxiety, preparing for the examination is already considered “mission impossible” since he cannot even learn the basic lessons.  The only conclusion he can make is that he will fail the math exam — again.  Clearly, it can be expected that a student suffering from math anxiety would almost always show signs of test anxiety.
Now, what can we actually do to help children cope with math anxiety?

The first step is to recognize that math anxiety is an emotional response.  It is not a permanent condition.  
The second step is to know that certain myths and misconceptions have actually reinforced poor math performance. One such misconception is that a student can only be good either in language or in math, and not at both fields of study.  A student who performs well in English grammar class may be a dunce at arithmetic, while a good math student would surely stammer during a poetry class. Education experts say that nothing can be farther from the truth. They insist that if schooled well, children can be good in languages and in numbers. They say that a good foundation in arithmetic is necessary to do well in higher level of mathematics.  Academicians are also careful to add that teachers play a major role in developing a healthy and positive regard for studying math.   If children experience repeated frustration and failure in learning math, it may be the “teacher factor” that is causing the anxiety and inability to learn.  Good math teachers are necessary to make the subject more interesting and rewarding for the students.  The third and most obvious step is to buckle down to work and try to learn math from the very beginning. As mentioned earlier, it entails a linear, progressive mastery of concepts and processes.  As in all things in life, mathematics, too, must be learned one step at a time.