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Do You Have Math Anxiety?

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By Caroline Richards
Assistant Professor, Mathematics at American Public University

Unfortunately, math anxiety is fairly common in our society. For many students, the problem begins in late elementary or middle school when more complex arithmetic problems are introduced. The more abstract aspects of algebra frequently provide the final blow. I’m sure all math teachers have heard variations on the theme “I was good at math before they decided to mix the alphabet in it.”

In addition, the effects of math anxiety create a self-perpetuating cycle since those who are anxious about math tend to avoid taking math classes and, as a result, have less practice at solving math problems and less exposure to higher levels of math.

It’s important to understand that math anxiety is not really a fear of math itself. Rather it is a fear of feeling inadequate and the resultant loss of self-esteem. Unfortunately some of the activities that those who were good at math remember fondly from school, such as board races, just contribute to these feelings of inferiority and embarrassment.

Our society tends to reinforce these negative attitudes about mathematics as well. Imagine two couples sitting down to play bridge. The hostess hands one of the men the score pad and asks him to keep score. He immediately responds “Oh I’ve never been good at math — let someone else do it”. No one would think a thing about it. However if that same person were to say “I can’t keep score because I’m illiterate and I can’t write down the names of people who are playing” people would be shocked. That response would have an enormous amount of social stigma attached to it. In our society it is considered perfectly acceptable to say that you’re not good at math because people have been allowed to use that as an excuse since elementary school.

If you suffer from math anxiety, you can make some changes yourself that will reduce stress and improve performance. Stop focusing on the grade and concentrate on developing a deeper understanding of the material. For most people, time and hard work are the keys to mastery. In part 2 we’ll examine more in depth steps you can take to break through your mathphobia.

[related post: Why Do We Study Mathematics?]

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