Learning Math Without the Anxiety
Math Anxiety is Widespread
“No one would brag that they can’t read, but
it’s socially acceptable to admit that you don’t
like math. Math anxiety is so widespread that even teachers
freely admit to it.” So says Sian L. Beilock, a psychologist
at the University of Chicago and author of Choke, a book
describing the brain’s response to performance
According to Judy Willis M.D., a neurologist and author
of Learning to Love Math, anxiety can literally cut off
the working memory needed to learn and solve problems.
Consequently, emotion is as important as knowledge in
determining a student’s success or failure in learning
As regards the teaching of math, Daniel Ansari at the
University of Western Ontario found that adults who are
uncomfortable with math pass their negative feeling on
to students. These findings were corroborated by Dr.
Beilock who discovered that high math anxiety in first
and second grade teachers negatively effects the performance
of their students.
Math Anxiety and Teaching Methodology
My friend Dayle Seymour, an internationally known teacher
of mathematics (Dayle Seymour Publications), reminisced
during one of our recent conversations,
“My first job out of college was teaching junior
high math. The biggest problem wasn’t the math,
it was the students’ attitude toward math. During
elementary school they had learned to be afraid of math,
and as a result, they hated it. My entire focus was to
make math approachable and fun. It’s hard teaching
math at the secondary level when so many kids have
been turned off to math at the elementary level.”
Why are so many students turned off to math by the
time they reach junior high? Why do so few students pursue
math in high school beyond the required courses? The
simple answer is, they feel completely inadequate in
the face of math and can’t wait to escape that
This feeling begins at an early age – in the primary
grades – when a significant percentage of the class
is already falling behind. With each passing year, as
the math problems get harder, the discomfort intensifies.
To deal with math anxiety on any scale, therefore, we
must look at prevention.
A Stress Free Learning Environment
Since its inception, Tools for
Teaching has focused
on building mastery within a positive learning environment.
Here are some instructional methods that remove the anxiety
from learning math.
Say, See, Do Teaching
Say, See, Do Teaching is simply learning by doing.
Students do something with each chunk of the task analysis
before moving on to the next chunk.
Say, See, Do Teaching minimizes math anxiety in two
ways. First, processing a single chunk of input
cognitive overload. Second, doing something
with that chunk right away minimizes forgetting.
To learn more about Say, See, Do Teaching, click
Think of the building of correct performance as coaching,
whether that performance is in a classroom, on stage,
or in the gymnasium. To any coach, performance anxiety
is the enemy. Only through calm can any student or athlete
get “in the zone” – that state of complete
mental focus that allows performance to unfold under
pressure just as it did in practice.
Yet, coaches are also perfectionist. In the words of
Vince Lombardi, legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers, “Practice
does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.”
Practice does not make perfect.
Only perfect practice
how do you reconcile the need for relaxation with the
need for perfection? Teachers and coaches have been using
the same method since time out of mind.
We will call it Structured Practice. First explain,
then model, then slowly walk students through performance
one step at a time. During walk-through watch the students’ performance
closely so you can catch and correct any error before
it is repeated.
Following initial mastery, the student must practice,
practice, practice as you continue to monitor. Through
repetition performance becomes increasingly smooth and
automatic. Only in this way can students learn to execute
a skill perfectly within a context of calm and confidence.
One of the most noticeable characteristics of lesson
presentation when you watch an effective teacher, regardless
of the subject area, is that Structured Practice comprises
a major portion of the lesson. There is plenty of Structured
Practice and it is unhurried. The message from the teacher
will all get this. It is only a matter of time.”
Even though teacher training programs often demonize
repetition as “drill and kill,” common sense
tells us that you have to practice something a lot before
you get good at it. I would suggest, therefore, that,
if you want your students to learn math without learning
fear at the same time, you will want to embrace Structured
What catches your eye?
One of the main times in which a teacher interacts
one-on-one with a student is when that student seeks
help during Guided Practice. Beware! The way in which
we give corrective feedback has a strong biological component
that can do damage if we are unaware of it.
Look at the picture to the right. What part catches your
Was it the blue beastie? When we scan a pattern, our
eye is captured by anything that breaks the pattern.
Our brain stops and says, “What’s that doing
Now, let’s apply this insight to helping a student
who is stuck with a math problem. Imagine that the student’s
work is part right and part wrong. As you scan the work,
which part catches your eye? Teachers typically respond
in unison, “The part that is wrong.”
Of course! Your eye scans exactly as it did in the
picture with the trees and the blue beastie. It scans
past the part that is right – “No problem
it stops as soon as the pattern of correct performance
is broken by an error – “Oops! Here is something
we need to work on.”
Clarifying the Path to Success
It is at this point that our normal pattern of visual
scanning produces a problem with instruction. If you
are looking at the error and you begin to speak, what
will you be talking about? A room full of teachers will
answer in unison, “The
Right! Now ask yourself, “How do people usually
react when you point out something that they have done
you ever tried to point out one of your spouse’s
shortcomings? Did they get defensive?
To reorient, let’s take a brief look at the topic
of error. There are a million ways to do anything wrong.
Each one is as useless as the next. Do you want to spend
valuable instructional time clarifying for the student
something that you never want them to repeat – while
making them feel bad?
Instead, take a relaxing breath, keep the error to
yourself, and simply give a prompt – a description of exactly
what to do next. This helps the student relax since it
clarifies the path to success. And it avoids defensiveness
as well as discouragement.
Visual Instructional Plans
Our final element of teaching methodology that reduces
the anxiety of learning math has to do with the visual
modality. How is your lesson plan represented to the
In Tools for Teaching a Visual Instruction Plan (VIP)
is simply a step by step lesson plan with all of the
steps represented visually. It is like the set of plans
that comes with a model airplane.
A lesson plan for a
math assignment would show the calculation one step at
a time with a picture for every step. Students can look
at the VIP at any time to see what to do next.
typically glance up for a bit of clarification and reassurance
whenever they feel a twinge of anxiety. But, when the
anxiety fades, they simply quit looking up.
Nothing clarifies the nature of a VIP better than to
see a few of them. Learn
more about VIPs here.