Why Mathematics Anxiety Persists and What to Do About It?

by Andy Akhigbe

Introduction

In this life, only a few people haven’t agonized over Mathematics.

However, negative attitudes towards Mathematics and Mathematics anxiety aren’t the same. A substantial number of kids and adults end up with Mathematics Anxiety because of the negative attitudes they bring towards the subject.

It starts insidiously as extreme negative behaviour towards Mathematics consisting of avoidance of anything with figures, but ends up in emotional reactions of feelings of apprehension, tension, frustration, or fear and physical symptoms of butterflies, a racing heart, or a struggle to catch one’s breath.

Mathematics is one subject people keep asking why do we need to study it. For the uninitiated, Mathematics is, at first, a frivolous subject without any real life application. Many wonder on what auspicious occasion, or when would it ever be admissible to use an innocuous looking Pythagoras Formula in real life: a² + b² = c²?

A little while ago, a viral video emerged on Twitter with a girl innocently asking a question about the relevance of Mathematics in life. People share the video for the same reason that they were as confused as the girl about the relevance of Mathematics to their everyday living.

Concerns about the relevance of Mathematics in life looks genuine on the surface, but if you think deeply, you’d appreciate why a good understanding of Mathematics is often a predictor of understanding life in general and becoming successful professionally and academically.

Take a look at Mathematical principles like the Golden Ratio and the Fibonacci Numbers – both have implications for the design and architecture of basic life forms and the replicating patterns we find everywhere in nature. What is life without the Golden Ratio or the Fibonacci Numbers and so many other Mathematical concepts and Principles?

What’s Mathematics Anxiety (MA)?
In a study by Liebert and Morris, what eventually manifests as MA has two dimensions – the cognitive dimension of “worry” – which focuses on concerns about performance and the consequences of failure, and the affective dimension of “emotionality” -which focuses on the nervousness and tension in testing situations and respective autonomic reactions.

MA is a negative response and an unpleasant feelings when faced with numbers, Mathematics and calculations that impedes the ability to solve Mathematical problems both in the classroom and in real life.

A corollary to MA is Mathematics Trauma (MT) which manifest when an abusive Mathematics practice by another person causes MA in someone else.

Why Does MA Persist?
Kids get their first impressions about Mathematics from their parents and other adults around them before forming their own opinions about Mathematics. If parents are enthusiastic about Mathematics without passing on subtle messages and cues that the subject is difficult, or that they are not a “Math Person,” kids often pick up those cues very well.

It becomes a vicious cycle when parents and adults at home pass on their anxiety to their kids. If such kids find peers in schools and teachers who struggle to understand and teach Mathematics, such kids end up entrenching their fear as it appears that everyone is saying the same thing about Mathematics being difficult, or that there are those who can legitimately can call themselves Math persons, while others accept their fate as Math laggards.

I’d share how I tackled MA in the lives of my three kids.

How I tackled MA with my Kids

In order to tackle MA in my family, I introduced my kids very early to Mathematics with story books on Mathematics – books like Sir Circumference and the First Round Table by Cindy Neuschwander and How Much Is A Million? by David M. Schwartz

First Lesson: Kids first encounter with Mathematics shouldn’t be with figures, but with stories, or as cartoons like the Manga Guide book series, which covers various subjects using interesting comics to teach and explain topics from Linear Algebra to Calculus and to Statistics.

As my kids grew older, I introduced them to mental Mathematics books. The most influential of the books they read that had the most impact on them was Secrets of Mental Math: The Mathemagician’s Guide to Lightning Calculation and Amazing Math Tricks by Arthur Benjamin & Michael Shermer.

Second Lesson: Kids second encounter should be as tricks starting with using their hands to count and figuring out how numbers work. It elicits an early sense of awe about how numbers work and how they relate to every day life.

Interactions between adults and kids should be teachable moment to explain Mathematical stuff. For instance, when shopping get kids to add up the grocery. Give them the receipt to ascertain if what was purchased tallies with the quantities of goods sold and the final amount on the receipt.

Third Lesson: Kids everyday encounter with figures should be a teachable moment between adults at home and kids. When they go out also and they encounter numbers, it should be expressed as a teachable moment.

What to Do About MA and MT?
MA and MT are real and have been studied for more than 60 years. Most of the last studies have arrived at the same conclusions – everyone will struggle with Mathematics at some point in their lives and nobody is born a Math person.

Even those who eventually become proficient in Mathematics have at some point in their lives struggled with the subject. If there is one subject kids need to be encouraged to persevere in, it’s Mathematics. It also requires grit.

Moreover, in a study conducted at the University of Florence in Italy in 2021, and published as Math Anxiety Mediates the Link Between Number Sense and Math Achievements in High Math Anxiety Young Adults in the Frontiers or Psychology, researchers found that actual proficiency in number sense did not differ between individuals they identified as Low Mathematics Anxiety (LMA) and High Mathematics Anxiety (HMA). That is, while both LMAs and HMAs were roughly equivalent in their overall ability to make judgement about relative quantities, this skill is determinant of Math proficiency only in HMAs and limited to numerosity (relative quantity) only. The authors concluded that poor number sense may “increase the probability of going through an initial failure and negative learning experience when learning Math at a young age.

The Importance of Not Teaching Mathematics As Rote
Teachers play a pivotal role in the teaching of Mathematics. Rote Learning doesn’t support good understanding of Mathematics. Most teachers were taught Mathematics through rote learning. Teaching kids this way also has entrenched a vicious cycle of MA that seems unbreakable today.

Mathematics can work well with Storytelling. Teachers should constantly explore how stories can be infused into the teaching of Mathematics. It will bring the subject closer to kids learning Mathematics and take it away from that rarefied area it presently lives in the minds of young learners.

Mathematics also works well when taught as Project-Based Learning (PBL). Teachers can start small with inquiry-based task designed to address meaningful content before launching fully into projects. Inquiry-based tasks will be limited to the classroom with students brainstorming and working in groups to solve relevant Mathematics problem. Project-based Learning will require students undertaking large scale project as groups. For instance, students can find a way to measure the dimensions of the National Theatre in Lagos to better understand Mathematics concepts like Circumference and Circle.

Other Project-Based Learning can take these dimensions also:

1. Analyze word problems in textbooks. Problems that ordinarily can be solved in test situations can be looked upon as projects with fresh insights and new strategies using Mathematics principles.

2. Look for problems within the classroom and the school environment and apply Mathematics to solve them. Document your findings and share your solutions.

3. Pick a problem within the society and attempt using Mathematics to solve the problem – the problem of out of school students for instance and improving outcomes for struggling students. This may require design Thinking, Agile, Learn Startup and Computational Thinking.

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