Math is a subject in school that many people have trouble learning. In addition to this struggle, this subject may also cause some people to tense up more than expected.
Mathematics anxiety is an issue people can deal with in or outside of the classroom, according to the University of Cambridge website. This anxiety is a negative reaction to mathematics, which can range from one getting slightly tense to being debilitated and useless.
Zhe Wang, assistant professor in the Texas Tech Human Development and Family Studies department, said people who face mathematics anxiety feel a sense of fear and apprehension when in a situation where math is involved. She said this type of anxiety could arise in many situations, not just testing situations.
Whether it be taking a math test or walking into a math class, Wang said there are a variety of situations involving math that can be anxiety inducing.
“It’s related to testing anxiety, but it doesn’t have to be tests,” she said regarding situations that cause mathematics anxiety to arise. “They don’t feel it in other situations; they don’t necessarily have general anxiety.”
Math test anxiety, which is the anxiety one faces while taking a math exam, math anxiety in social situations, such as counting out change or dividing a dinner bill among friends, and calculation anxiety, which is the anxiety that arises while solving a math problem on an assignment or at the front of the class, all are types of mathematics anxiety Wang said people can face.
“Although there are three dimensions of anxiety, they’re usually highly correlated,” she said. “Meaning, if you experience one, you’re likely experiencing another.”
Disliking math and having math anxiety are two issues Wang said are not similar, as someone who is good or bad at math can dislike certain aspects of the subject.
The prominence of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics fields in society is one reason Wang said mathematics anxiety is more well-known than anxiety related to other school subjects. Other factors, such as culture and levels of education, can make math more anxiety-inducing for students than other subjects.
The United States being ranked low in regard to student success in math education is another reason Wang said researchers tend to focus on the anxiety towards math.
“People just think math as this categorically different thing,” she said. “It’s like another language that you can’t really learn.”
Jian Wang, professor and Helen DeVitt Jones Chair in Teacher Education in the Tech College of Education, said typically, people who have confidence in their math skills tend to have the least amount of nervousness in math situations.
“Mathematics anxiety is kind of related with that,” he said. “People who have anxiety in mathematics usually have less confidence in what they are doing.”
Even in the field of educational psychology, Jian Wang said confidence is a prominent factor.
“This is exactly consistent with all kinds of situations,” he said regarding having confidence in most school subjects.
Abubakarr Yillah, first-year Ph.D student in applied mathematics from The Gambia, West Africa and coordinator of the Tech Department of Mathematics and Statistics Tutoring and Study Center, said anyone can face mathematics anxiety.
“It applies to everybody, even math majors,” he said. “Sometimes, you just have this anxiety about solving a problem, especially one that you think you don’t know how to solve. It’s a normal thing regardless of your mathematical background.”
Even with notes, Yillah said some non-math majors and even some math majors can face anxiety when they are unaware of how to first approach a math problem. He said the best way to overcome mathematics anxiety is to ask for help.
“Usually, when they come in, we try to help them out and calm them down to reduce the anxiety they have about taking the exam, even though there is a lot they need to know,” he said regarding students who utilize the TSC.
Even though math can be difficult for multiple reasons, Yillah said one cannot improve if he or she does not make any effort to learn from class materials or ask for help.
“If you practice, seek help, read the textbook, that will help a lot,” he said. “Most of the time, the ones that have a lot of anxiety in solving math problems are the ones who literally don’t even know anything about what is happening in the class.”
Among the various ways a student can overcome mathematics anxiety, improving one’s math skills may be the first method a person considers.
Multiple studies have looked at different methods to reduce mathematics anxiety, Zhe Wang said. Even though math anxiety may never go away, she said working to get better at math may be a good first step.
“If their math ability or their math skills are improved, then do they feel less anxious?” she said. “The answer to that is yes.”
Other studies considered behavioral techniques to reduce mathematics anxiety, Zhe Wang said. Regarding a study done by the University of Chicago, she said researchers studied how expressive writing could help reduce mathematics anxiety before a class or test.
Expressing anxiety through writing before a test, class or any academic situation to unload stress is the focus of the study, Zhe Wang said. When a person thinks too much about the stress of an upcoming test or class, she said the overthinking interferes with that person’s thought processes.
“If I write about it already, then it won’t affect me when I actually have to do it,” she said regarding the logic of this study. “They test two groups of students. One group is writing and the other is not. They feel the same level of anxiety. But after they write, they perform better than the other group.”
Regardless of the different techniques one can use to alleviate his or her mathematics anxiety, making any amount of effort could be beneficial for some students.
“When you see a problem, even if you can’t solve it immediately, you’ll always have that fear that you will not be able to solve it,” Yillah said. “But if you spend time on it, that anxiety starts going away.”