Kramer McCausland is an instructor at AcerPlacer. He is working on a double bachelors in math and philosophy.
Math anxiety is wildly prevalent. Official studies vary a lot in their reporting of math anxiety, but in my personal work with students, I’ve found as much as 50% report some degree of math anxiety. Everything from mild dread when faced with a math problem to near terror at the sight of numbers. The art and practice of manipulating numbers is often portrayed as dull work, but for those with math anxiety, it can feel like an adrenaline-pumping fight for their lives. OK, maybe I’m exaggerating a bit, but I do have a lot of respect for students who, even though math is a source of major anxiety, choose to fight that good fight every day. I’ve compiled a list of some of the best tips I’ve found for combating math anxiety:
1) Stay organized, stay calm
Doing a complicated math problem can sometimes feel like heading down a rabbit hole. It can be full of twists and turns and dead-ends, and the sheer complexity of looking at that on a piece of paper can worry us. It is hugely important, as you head into these more complicated math problems, that you develop a step-by-step way of writing out your work. If you can’t look back at what you’ve written down and describe what you’re doing between each line of work, then you’re not being organized enough. Don’t be afraid to use scratch paper if you need it. Number your steps so you can see them clearly. Use colored pens or pencils to tell the difference between each new step. Clarity is your friend.
2) Keep your notes handy
First, take good notes. Well-written and organized notes are your greatest homework ally. As you work through your math homework, think of your notes as a leg up. Keep them nearby, but not visible. You want to challenge yourself to complete the hard work of mathematics without looking at your notes, but never feel ashamed if you have to pull them out every few problems (or even on every problem). As we learn math (especially if we’re preparing for a no-notes test), we need to train our brain to find the right answer without help, but it will help us avoid anxiety if we know we have somewhere to turn to when we’re stuck. If you get anxious about taking notes in class, ask your instructor if they have a printed copy of the notes. This way, you can dedicate yourself fully to paying attention instead of worrying about keeping up with what the instructor writes on the board.
3) Know your limit
In a perfect world, we would study math (and all of the beautiful things) simply because we enjoy it. But, for many of us, we’re studying math as a requirement for a high school or college level class. That means that we probably have a time constraint and will feel pressured to work ourselves into exhaustion. Now, a little bit of pressure is good, it will keep you motivated and focused, but know that you are going to have an upper limit. At some point, continuing to study will not yield additional knowledge. Do some amount of math every day as you prepare, but don’t burn yourself out by doing an outrageous cram session that you can’t remember the next day.
4) Test-taking: A breathing technique
A big part of math anxiety boils down to math test anxiety. There is no denying that taking a big math test can be scary, but keeping in mind a few test-taking tips can help us relax. Other than being prepared (which I hope you are), you should also learn a couple breathing and relaxation techniques to avoid psyching yourself out. To help you relax, close your eyes and try breathing in through your nose for 5 counts, holding for 2 counts, breathing out through your nose for 5 counts, holding for 2 counts, and repeat. As you breathe, just take a moment to notice where in your body you feel the breath moving in and out of your body. Maybe you feel the air traveling past your nostrils, expanding/contracting your chest, or as an up and down motion in your abdomen. The goal here is to just give your mind and body a break right at the beginning or in the middle of the test if you start to feel out of sorts. If you run into a hard problem, try to do 3 or 4 cycles of this breathing technique and then come back to it.
5) Test-taking: Relaxation technique
If the breathing trick isn’t your cup of tea, you can also find some peace of mind by trying some visualization. This takes some practice, and it may feel silly the first time you do it, so you should practice this a bit at home before test day. The goal is to be able to travel in your mind to your own personal “happy place”. I use this all the time as a mini-vacation I give myself during difficult tests or while doing my homework to relax. Start by closing your eyes and picturing a place, either real or imagined, that is calming to you. For me, I close my eyes and see the shores of a lake I used to go to as a kid. The details don’t have to be perfect, but throw in some small details to draw you in. For me, I’m sitting on a canvas chair, looking out at the blue water. I’m alone, and I have a book in my hand. But I’m not reading, I’m just looking out on the water and feeling the sand under my feet. Your happy place might be leagues different than mine, or might be pretty similar. Give this a try and see if it helps you keep a cool head when the going gets tough.
“Almost everything in life will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes, including you.”
— Anne Lamott