Math Anxiety FAQ: A Strategy Guide to Confidence
Updated: Aug 10, 2021
After reading this article you will be able to...
demonstrate understanding of what math anxiety and math vocabulary are
use science-backed techniques to reduce anxiety and see a clear path to the answer
make confident, informed choices about how to better learn math concepts
share your new knowledge to help others who suffer from math anxiety
What is math anxiety?
To answer this question, we first need to understand the answer to a bigger question: what is anxiety?
The best answer I've found so far is that anxiety is a different story for each person, which involves a combination of physiologic factors and psychosomatic symptoms. In other words, anxiety may not look or feel exactly the same for all of us. The good news is that we can treat anxiety using similar strategies because the symptoms are based in the same biologic processes.
So, back to the original question: what is math anxiety? Math anxiety is a particular subset of anxiety which prevents students from performing as well or as comfortably as they are capable on math assignments and tests.
Below, I'll discuss the roots of math anxiety and review successful, science-backed anxiety-reducing techniques. These are strategies I've used myself and taught to hundreds of my students.
How common is math anxiety?
Extremely common. Most of the adults I know have it; most of the students I know have it. I used to have it — bad. I was one of the students who internalized the idea that, “I'm just not good at math.” Since learning that this negative, unhelpful idea wasn’t true, I’ve heard it countless times in the classroom from students who were just like me.
“I’m just not good at math” really means, “I’m uncomfortable with math because I don't understand some key elements yet.” The important word there is “yet.” Not comprehending a certain topic in math simply means that a student hasn’t heard that information in the correct way for their brain...yet. When it comes to learning, it’s often just a matter of time and desire. A student has to want the knowledge badly enough to put in the time to figure out how to gain a better understanding—their way.
My particular way turned out to be rather weird, but it helped me to understand the core of math anxiety from an insider's perspective. During the middle of my 8th grade school year, I moved from Orlando in central Florida to Jacksonville, up on the Atlantic near the border with Georgia. Not too far distance-wise, but far enough for the school curriculum standards to be different. In Orlando, algebra was a 9th grade course. In Jacksonville, it was an 8th grade course. To get into high school on time in Jacksonville, I needed an algebra credit.
The solution was for me to take algebra online using a self-taught course program—during the summer before 9th grade began. Not what a recently-uprooted teenager wants to hear about summertime.
Despite my initial resistance, teaching myself forced me to try to better understand what I needed to know, what I knew, and what I didn’t even know I didn’t know yet. The fact that it was summertime in Florida motivated me to be efficient in my efforts to get through the material. I wanted to play! So I made a plan and blocked out time so that I’d finish the course in a few weeks.
A week in, I was already so behind. The sudden appearance of letters as variables in my math problems was jarring, and I didn’t understand my confusion well enough to articulate what I didn’t get. This is such a common challenge for students, I’ve since come to realize. A big part of the battle of understanding difficult material is knowing what you need to know. Up to that point, my teachers had done a great job organizing and spacing out material for me. I’d never had to plan my learning schedule on my own before.
That I’d failed so miserably right from the get-go discouraged teenage me. For the next few hot summer weeks, I didn’t make much progress and felt more and more frustrated with myself for not just “getting it” already. Not knowing any better, I was trying to brute-force my way to understanding by re-reading the same information and re-trying the problems I wasn’t getting correct without much becoming clearer. I could do plenty of the step-by-step operations, but when given a real-world style word problem, I froze.
I didn't know what to do differently. Looking back, I can relate my experience to some key information I learned much later after leaving Florida and moving to northern regions of the US.
When someone falls through thin ice into freezing cold water, the body experiences what's called a “cold shock response.” (It should really be called a reaction.) You may have experienced a mild version of this cold shock response by drinking something cold and getting a “brain freeze.” This series of cardio-respiratory reactions is the most common way people succumb to icy water, but this frigid fate can be avoided by possessing the right knowledge beforehand.
In this video, you’ll learn how to save yourself in the event you find yourself on thin ice. After this video, I’ll explain how it’s connected to math. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0gd6QC2Emrc
Often, when students encounter a tough-looking problem, they experience a “freeze” response. The SAT and ACT exams for high school juniors and seniors are famous for disguising familiar concepts into confusing-seeming monsters.
In this moment of panic, anxiety often says, “Oh no, have I seen this before? Do I need to use all of this information? I don't know what that word means, and I'm running out of time! I don't know where to begin! What does this question want from me?”
This panic reaction is similar to what someone uninformed about the cold shock response may do: flail around in the cold water, wasting time and energy by panicking and moving too fast without understanding what needs to happen in that moment.
Even students who are stellar in math class can get stumped by intimidatingly long word problems, especially when they include a diagram. Not only are these questions lengthy, but the time it takes to interpret and solve them can be a good bit longer — and that isn't even counting the cold shock response time that must elapse before a path to the answer is clear.
What helps alleviate anxiety?
Jumping into the cold water often, in safe, risk-free circumstances. Similar to what we saw in the video, we can manage anxiety freezes by better understanding what our bodies are going through and allowing ourselves to relax. By doing this enough the relaxation becomes habitual, and your confidence increases as your anxiety starts to disappear. The more times you choose to encounter a difficult concept (and don’t allow yourself to panic or get discouraged), the easier you’re making life for your future self. Failing a lot means you’re learning a lot. If you anticipate this and give yourself permission to make mistakes when it doesn’t matter, you’re much more likely to perform well when it does matter.
For academic test-taking, “jumping into the water” means taking as many practice tests as you can before you go in to sit for your real exam. It also means exposing yourself to sources of information about what is making you anxious. Talk to teachers, family, and friends about what you’re studying. Use the results from your practice tests to guide your studies. If you don't know how to do that, seek out a tutor who can help you interpret them.
If we expand our scope to any student experiencing anxiety (not just test-takers), the answer remains the same: develop a set of tools to fit the specific student that promote awareness and confidence. Create a study plan and develop strategies that will help fill in the conceptual grey areas and make you prouder of your grey matter. Others can help you by suggesting tools and providing you with resources or assistance, but you're the one who can really tell if it’s clicking or not. Pay attention to what's happening when light bulb moments occur!
If students understand the underlying reasons for their anxiety, it can vanish or show up much-reduced and more-manageable. With practice, results analysis, help from the community, students soon feel confidence and positivity where they once felt fear and dread. I know because I've lived it, and I've seen it often in the classroom.
What about math anxiety specifically? Any tools for that?
Seek information about new math concepts from as many sources as possible. The key is to receive the information a way your mind can interpret it well; the challenge is to find that way. It may happen the first time with some sources (bookmark those) or it may take listening to 20 less-helpful sources to find that 21st that leads you to the glorious light-bulb moment you seek.
I've said that the trouble with classroom learning is that when a teacher explains a topic, on a good day only maybe 80% of the students are on board with the given explanation. The other 20% are left feeling at least iffy on the subject, if not wholly confused. The 20%ers may feel like they “just don't get it” or even aren't “smart enough” to get it. This kind of feeling, if unaddressed, tends to compound when it comes to math. Many math concepts build upon each other, so if an early idea is unclear, it makes later ideas harder to learn.
To combat concept gaps and address math anxiety at its source, diagnostic screening and strategic conceptual assessment can be helpful for students of any age who would like to feel more confident in math.
My students are used to me reminding them when they're experiencing frustration that the SAT and ACT don't test your “math knowledge.” They test your knowledge of what they test and how they test it. The SAT tests what the College Board deems representative of math skills and concepts, and these may differ greatly from the state standards or school curriculum guidelines in place at local schools. Many students go into the test without realizing this and succumb to their cold shock responses.
Getting SAT and ACT math questions correct is a matter of recognizing concepts when they've been cleverly and purposely disguised by the psychologists who design standardized tests. So you'll need to equip yourself with a psychological wet suit, so to speak (to keep the cold shock metaphor alive)
Here's a starter tool you can use to equip your wet suit: math vocab. Many students don't realize is that math, despite being separate from “verbal” parts on tests, includes SO MUCH VOCAB. Learning how to translate word problems is a wildly useful math skill. Many words have a direct mathematical equivalent. Here's a brief example:
“What is 175% of 29?”
"what" = x *(substitute unknowns with variables)
"is" = equals *(“has” and “was” often mean equals, too)
175% = 1.75 *(conceptual knowledge of converting percents to decimals needed here)
"of" = multiply *(one of the most-helpful math vocab terms; many wrongly think it means to divide)
29 = 29 *(numbers don't need translatin’)
Put together, we get x = (1.75)(29).
We’ve created a solvable equation from the given words, and in so doing we've also created a systematic path to the answer for percent word problems like this that we encounter in the future.
Now we can get to the answer confidently in seconds by solving the equation we created using math vocab translation:
x = (1.75)(29)
x = 50.75
Now let's ramp it up with one of the most common types of “trick” questions on the SAT and ACT, which is only a slight (but important!) variation on what we just translated.
29 is what percent of 175?
29 = (x%)(175)
x = 29/175
x = 0.166
x = 16.6%
Or, another similar version of this type of question may look like this:
175 is 29% of what value?
175 = (0.29)(x)
175/0.29 = x
x = 603.45
Despite these three questions using the same two numbers, they lead to different potential answers depending on the way the question is worded. These percent questions in particular are used to catch students off-guard, especially those who rely on mental math for speed. You can count on the most commonly-made error results to be an answer option on the SAT & ACT. Having a practiced system for solving these problems often leads to faster and more confident performance and improved results on tests.
If you spend your study time learning new solving strategies and testing them out to see if they work well for you, you’re managing your study time efficiently. It may feel like it takes more time in the beginning — and it does! — because it’s new. That’s why starting early enough is important. You allow yourself the time it takes to adjust, figure out what you don’t know, and design a system to learn it well.
Wet suits don't keep you dry. That's what a dry suit does. I learned this when I jumped into the water for the first time wearing a wet suit and was surprised when I got wet. Wet suits keep you warm.
For anyone curious, here’s a non-animated demonstration of a cold shock response and self-rescue from icy water: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A3g-NTP6F3w
You may also be interested in...
more math vocab terms & how to use them to translate difficult word problems.
meditation & focus techniques
goal-setting & procrastination
Jessica Robinson is a test prep tutor in Manhattan. She has spent over a decade coaching students in standardized test-prep and anxiety-management. She’s a lifelong student, paraglider pilot, and usually thinks it ought to be warmer out than it is.