Can you do long division in your head and calculate tips in your sleep? Or does the mere thought of arithmetic keep you up at night?
If you fall into the latter camp, you’re not alone.
Math anxiety is real—and an established body of research proves it. In fact, data shows that math anxiety affects at least 20% of students.
And its effects can be damaging in both the immediate and long term. It can bring down student performance both in and beyond math, and in and outside the classroom.
Fortunately, we’re also learning how teachers can help students manage math anxiety—and succeed wherever it’s holding them back.
We explored this topic on a recent episode of Math Teacher Lounge, our biweekly podcast created specifically for K–12 math educators. This season is all about recognizing and reducing math anxiety in students, with each episode featuring experts and educators who share their insights and strategies around this critical subject.
Dr. Gerardo Ramirez, associate professor of educational psychology at Ball State University, has been studying math anxiety for more than a decade. He joined podcast hosts Bethany Lockhart Johnson and Dan Meyer to share his insights.
So let’s take a look at what math anxiety is—and is not. We’ll also explore what impact it has on learning, and what we can do about it.
What is math anxiety?
Math anxiety is more than just finding math challenging, or feeling like you’re “not a math person.” Dr. Ramirez offers this definition: “[Math anxiety] is a fear or apprehension in situations that might involve math or situations that you perceive as involving math. Anything from tests to homework to paying a tip at a restaurant.”
Math anxiety may cause sweating, rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, and other physical symptoms of anxiety.
But while math anxiety has some similarities with other forms of anxiety, it’s exclusive to math-related tasks, and comes with a unique set of characteristics and influences.
Math anxiety can lead sufferers to deliberately avoid math. And this avoidance can not only result in a student not learning math, but also limiting their academic success, career options, and even social experiences and connections. This can look like anything from getting poor grades in math class, to tension with family members over doing math homework.
Parents and teachers can suffer from math anxiety, too. In fact, some research suggests that when teachers have math anxiety, it’s more likely that some of their students will, too.
What causes math anxiety?
It’s not correlated to high or low skill or performance in math. Students who generally don’t do well in math can experience math anxiety because they assume they’ll do poorly every time. Students who have been pressured to be high-achieving experience math anxiety because they’re worried they won’t meet expectations.
Other triggers may include:
- Pressure. Pressure from parents or peers to do well in math can create anxiety, especially if the person feels that their worth or future success is tied to their math abilities.
- Negative past experiences. Someone who has struggled with math or gotten negative feedback about their math skills might develop math anxiety. They may start to avoid or fear math, making it even harder to approach and improve.
- Learning style. Different people have different learning styles. When someone’s learning style doesn’t match the way math is taught in their class or school, they may struggle and develop anxiety.
- Cultural factors. When students hear things like, “Boys are better at math,” it can increase math anxiety in girls who may absorb the notion that they are already destined to underachieve.
Math anxiety and working memory
Dr. Ramirez has researched the important relationship between math anxiety and working memory.
Working memory refers to the ability to hold and manipulate information in short-term memory. People with math anxiety often have poorer working memory capacity when it comes to math-related tasks. This is thought to be due to the cognitive load created by anxiety, which can interfere with the ability to manage information in working memory.
The result? A negative feedback loop. Poor working memory can lead to further math anxiety, and increased anxiety can further impair working memory.
However, it’s important to note that not all individuals with math anxiety experience a decline in working memory capacity. Some may have average or above-average working memory capacity but still experience math anxiety. In such cases, the anxiety may be related to negative beliefs about one’s ability to perform math tasks, rather than an actual cognitive deficit.
What we can do about math anxiety
Even though math anxiety is a distinct type of anxiety, interventions such as cognitive behavioral therapy, exposure therapy, and mindfulness approaches have been shown to be effective in reducing it.
It starts, says Dr. Ramirez, with normalizing the anxiety.
“If you’re a student and you’re struggling with math and I tell you, ‘Yeah, it’s hard, it’s OK to struggle with math,’ that makes you feel seen. And that’s gonna lead you to want to ask me more for help, because I’m someone who understands you,” says Dr. Ramirez. “And that’s a great opportunity.”