Guest Post: Math Anxiety

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


Women and Math in the Media: A Commentary

As a math teacher, one of the biggest obstacles I face when teaching students is math anxiety. Many students have it to varying degrees. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about how math anxiety tends to fall along gender lines and, of course, The Big Bang Theory [TBBT].

Before I start, I just want to be clear: I don’t hate TBBT (I actually find it pretty funny), and I certainly don’t think that it’s the cause of the problems that I want to talk about. However, I do feel that it is a very visible symptom of a larger over-arching problem. Besides, no one will have read the research articles I’ll be quoting, but most people will have seen at least one episode of one of the most popular currently-running TV shows, so it gets to be the unfortunate lightening rod for my disappointment.

For those who may have not heard of TBBT, it is a show about scientists hanging out and being nerdy. It starts out with the beautiful Penny moving across the hall from Leonard and Sheldon, two physicists doing research at Caltech. That’s a fairly straightforward sitcom setup. However, several criticisms have been leveled at the show because of its use of stereotypes as part of its humor. Penny is the beautiful, normal person. The scientists are men, socially inept, and unable to talk to Penny easily. Why is this a problem?

This reinforces some harmful stereotypes about women in science (and scientists generally, but we’ll put those aside for a moment).  Penny is often shown as completely clueless about various science and math topics and has to have them explained to her by the shows male cast members. In this, the writers cast Penny as the audience, who the writers assume know nothing about the topics on the show. For the first several seasons, there are no other female leads. This is alleviated a little bit with the introduction of Bernadette and Amy, a microbiologist and neurologist respectively. However, for their first few seasons, both are portrayed as socially awkward and admirers of Penny’s beauty. In short, it went from saying that “girls can’t do science” to “pretty girls can’t do science.” Finally, in the most recent seasons, Bernadette and Amy have taken on greater roles and shed some of their questionable character traits to become better female role models.

Maybe you’re wondering why I’m making such a big deal of an admittedly small part of the show. It’s all in good fun, right? I point it out because the way women are portrayed in media affects how girls and women feel about their abilities to perform in math and science. Multiple studies have shown that women report higher levels of math anxiety than men, and while the reason for this is up for some debate (Jameson & Fusco, 2014), studies have found that examples and role models can have positive or negative effects. For example, elementary-aged girls are more likely to have math anxiety and believe in the stereotype that boys are better at math than girls if their female teacher also has math anxiety (Beilock et al., 2010). Negativity about math is contagious, even if it is left unspoken.

On the other hand, positive portrayals of women in careers and science in magazines have been shown to help improve women’s performance on a math exam (Luong & Knobloch-Westerwick, 2017). Notice that wasn’t long-term exposure to those stereotypes, that was simply reading a few pages from a single magazine immediately before taking the exam. So if those good stereotypes helped after just a few minutes, even if that effect was temporary, imagine what constant exposure over the course of an entire TV show could do for a child?

As I mentioned, TBBT has definitely taken steps in the right direction in this regard. I am certainly not trying to get people to hate the show, but rather point to it as one of the most visible examples. However, the myths and stereotypes about women and math persist across many shows and stories in culture today. While having more positive role models of women in math and science won’t magically fix every issue faced by women in STEM fields, it could help alleviate at least the math anxiety faced by girls becoming women.

I’m not asking for anything drastic. All I am asking for are a few more Bernadettes and a few fewer Pennys.

  • Beilock, S. L., Gunderson, E. A., Ramirez, G., & Levine, S. C. (2010). Female teachers’ math anxiety affects girls’ math achievement. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(5), 1860–1863.
  • Jameson, M. M., & Fusco, B. R. (2014). Math anxiety, math self-concept, and math self-efficacy in adult learners compared to traditional undergraduate students. Adult Education Quarterly, 64(4), 306–322.
  • Luong, K. T., & Knobloch-Westerwick, S. (2017). Can the Media Help Women Be Better at Math? Stereotype Threat, Selective Exposure, Media Effects, and Women’s Math Performance: Media and Stereotype Threat. Human Communication Research, 43(2), 193–213.