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Learning without Math 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 pressure.


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 math.


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 awful feeling.

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 minimizes cognitive overload. Second, doing something with that chunk right away minimizes forgetting.


Structured Practice

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."


So, 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 is, “We 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 Practice.

Corrective Feedback 

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 eye? 


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 there?”


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 here.” But 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 error.”


Right! Now ask yourself, “How do people usually react when you point out something that they have done wrong?” Have 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 students?


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.


Students 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.

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