“Do not worry about your difficulties in Mathematics. I can assure you mine are still greater.” – Albert Einstein
Math anxiety is a vicious cycle. Researchers led by Alana Foley from the University of Chicago looked at the phenomenon across 64 different countries, and found, unsurprisingly, that students with higher math anxiety tended to do worse on math tests.
But what comes first, the anxiety or the low scores? The researchers concluded that it's a vicious cycle: If you’re anxious, you’ll perform worse, which only ups your anxiety even more.
So make no mistake, math anxiety is a very real problem for many students (more than you’d think!). And it’s something you should make a conscious effort to tackle if you’re struggling in math. The good news is that you can overcome it. Here's how to pass that test that’s coming up.
1. Realize You Don’t Need a “Mathematical Brain”
One thing many people with math anxiety believe is that they’re “just not good at math,” or they “don’t have the brain for it.” The truth is kind of scary and comforting at the same time: nobody really does. There is no magic brain structure that makes you good at math. Like most things, it’s a matter of practice. And a huge number of creative, “non math” people can and do excel at math. If you engage and try to learn, you really can do it.
2. Make Math Relevant to You
It’s understandable why many people think they aren’t “math people.” Frankly, the way math is taught in school is often boring, overly abstract and unconnected to anything you’ll use (or even want to use!) in real life.
Just remember that math is so much more than that.
Whether it’s working out how regularly your football team needs to score to win the big game, or working out how much tax you’ll have to pay on that new bag you want. If you’re in science, one of the best things to do to learn statistics is to use your own data or something very closely linked to your field of interest.
3. Focus on the Positives
Part of any anxiety – but math anxiety too – is a disproportionate focus on the negatives. and often completely ignoring positives. It might seem cliché (and it is, let’s face it) but focusing on the positives on purpose is a really valuable tactic.
Imagine you get your math homework back from the teacher, and find that you got 10/15 right. You might think “only 10 out of 15! I needed 12 for a B, and I need a B average to get into college. I’ll never be able to do this.” But the reality is that you’ve shown you can answer two-thirds of the math questions that are posed to you. If you think too much about the five bits you need to work on, you risk forgetting about the 10 questions you knocked out of the park.
4. Write Down How You Feel Before an Exam
When researchers have looked at the best ways to tackle math anxiety, they’ve found that emotional regulation is the most important aspect. Even if people have high levels of math anxiety, the people who were able to regulate these emotions scored more like people with low levels of math anxiety.
Actually achieving this is easier said than done, of course, but one very useful technique is to (literally) write down how you’re feeling 10 to 15 minutes before the exam. List your concerns on paper and evaluate them as objectively as you can. Maybe some concerns will be valid, but you’ll undoubtedly see some cracks in the reasoning when your thought process is in front of you in black and white.
5. Start With the Easy Questions
One simple tip for feeling better about an exam is forgetting about the order the questions are written. Do the ones you know how to do before taking on any bigger challenges. You’ll make sure you get those marks in the bag, but more importantly, it’ll build confidence for the more challenging questions you tackle later.
6. Focus on the Whys Rather Than Memorizing Formulas
One of the best ways to learn math is to focus on conceptual understanding rather than worrying about remembering a specific formula. If you understand why the math works the way it does, the specifics are much easier to remember. So don’t beat yourself up about any individual thing you’ve struggled to remember, focus on being able to explain what the formula does even if you can’t always recall exactly what symbol goes where.
7. Get a Tutor or One-On-One Help
Another big part of math anxiety is the social side – giving an incorrect answer in class is much more embarrassing than doing the same thing in your room. This is why individual tutoring can really help, even if it’s just a friend helping you out privately. This is great for practicing and learning without worrying about whether people are judging you (trust me, they aren’t! People hate math as much as you). But it’s especially good if your tutor is passionate about the subject.
The real trick, through all of these individual points, is shifting your attitude to math. It isn’t your ability that’s the problem – you’re almost certainly capable of learning it – it’s the idea that math is some alien thing that won’t be any use to you. Like it or not, math is involved in many parts of modern life, and the best way to get through it is to start to enjoy it, respect it or at least take pleasure in the moment when you finally work out that problem.
- Oxford Learning: What is Math Anxiety?
- Albert Einstein: Einstein, Letters From and To Children
- Psychology Today: How to Overcome Math Anxiety
- University of Sheffield: Student Strategies for Overcoming Maths Anxiety
- Weber State University: How to Overcome Math Anxiety
- Science Daily: Brain Study Reveals How Successful Students Overcome Math Anxiety
About the Author
Lee Johnson is a freelance writer and science enthusiast, with a passion for distilling complex concepts into simple, digestible language. He's written about science for several websites including eHow UK and WiseGeek, mainly covering physics and astronomy. He was also a science blogger for Elements Behavioral Health's blog network for five years. He studied physics at the Open University and graduated in 2018.