May 8, 2021

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Why does math make me nervous?

Put a math problem in front of me and my mind will be blank.

Unless it is the simplest of tasks, my immediate feeling and fear is that my mind cannot solve it.

Faced with rows of numbers and symbols, I have a mysterious feeling in my head that convinces me that I cannot understand it.

Sometimes the numbers seem to jump off the screen or page. Numbers got out to get me.

Then there is the harrowing memory of an elementary school teacher suddenly asking in front of the entire class about six eight years.

I knew but in panic about being caught, I was like a bunny in the headlights feeling stupid while someone else shouted the answer faster.

I’ve since learned to take deep breaths and try again, but it often feels like I’m translating a new language without a phrase book.

I will check maths and problems with an online calculator or colleagues or friends that I know are good at math. I am often surprised that I get it right anyway.

So why am I so afraid of mathematics?

It’s a question many people ask after helping their children with schoolwork during lockdown.

Not everyone feels confident answering math questions in class
Not everyone feels confident answering math questions in class

Some surveys showed that parents felt reasonable confidence in helping their children become literate when it came to math, but that was another matter.

Experts say math anxiety is a common problem that affects boys and girls.

It usually starts early in childhood when some children convince themselves that they are bad at math and give up trying.

Mathematics is mistakenly seen as a constant ability that we are either good or bad at.

Some people decide early on that they do not have a “mathematical mind” and give up. They lose confidence and stop exerting effort with other subjects.

Educators say there is a strong relationship between how children see themselves and how they perform academically. This can even affect how the brain handles an math problem.

Part of the problem is the way mathematics is taught in schools, says Keith Topping, professor of education and social research at the University of Dundee.

“One of the things about math is that it’s a compulsory subject in school and you have a problem with the things people make,” says Professor Topping.

“It is impossible to avoid math until people feel pressured to do something that they feel they are not good at.

“It also seems subtly acceptable to say that you cannot do math any more than to say that you cannot read or that you find it difficult to read.”

Some parents felt a lack of confidence in helping their children with math homework at home during the lockdown
Some parents felt a lack of confidence in helping their children with math homework at home during the lockdown

Self-confidence has a major role in mathematics. Some people expect failure so they don’t put in too much effort. As a result, they are not successful, but if they try harder, they will be. On the other hand, some people are overconfident.

Mathematics can sometimes be mistakenly thought of as “boys’ material” as well, but that is changing.

Professor Topping says: “There is an element that some girls believe are not as good at math as boys, and some girls tend to have less confidence than they should.

“But research shows that girls are now performing better than boys in mathematics in primary and secondary schools.”

He believes that most children and adults with a fear of mathematics are better at the topic than they think.

You can learn math at any age but you need to be really clear where to start
You can learn math at any age but you need to be really clear where to start

Math fear is an association that builds over time and is difficult to get rid of.

Education Counselor, Former Elementary School Teacher, and Mathematics Coordinator Paul Tiac has worked in schools around the world.

He says math can make children and adults nervous because they feel they have to come up with an immediate answer very quickly.

He warns that teachers asking pupils to shout their answers in front of the class can help create an enduring fear of mathematics.

Since mathematics is a topic of right and wrong, the fear of making mistakes, especially in front of others, can be greater than it is in some subjects.

“There can be pacing and getting things done quickly in math. It doesn’t motivate some people, it just puts them in a panic zone.

“Even if you had a good understanding as a kid, you equate math problems with speed. Child math experiences can be quite formative.

“People think the speed at which you can remember things is a measure of how good you are at them.”
Preparing math by ability in schools also risks sending children a message early that it is a subject that they are not good at.

Running classes with mixed capabilities with tasks that can be more or less complex for individual students can help address this.

Prof Topping says it’s about how many phobias their brains collapse when thinking about mathematics.

“You can do math at any age but you have to be really clear where to start.”

It might mean re-learning some things from elementary school, but that’s okay and it’s probably better than you think.