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UNC Researcher Shares Tips for Coping with Math Anxiety

Student doing math equations on a chalkboard

October 9, 2019

It’s estimated that one in four college students experience symptoms of math anxiety, which can affect each of them differently.

UNC Associate Professor Molly Jameson, who researches the condition that she herself confronted and overcame en route to earning a Ph.D. and becoming a faculty member, offered tips for students to manage the condition:

Boost Confidence

Molly JamesonJameson (image at right) recommends that students should try to boost their confidence and control their anxiety by focusing on past successes in calculating math or while in a previous math class.

"Think about a time when you improved your grade in a math class; victory doesn't mean getting 100%, and being successful doesn't mean getting 100% ... it means improvement," Jameson said. "Focusing on those times you've improved can really help."

Journaling

Math-anxious students should also consider writing about their anxieties before doing math, which can help release those anxieties from their thoughts and clear the way to do calculations. 

"Write about how and why you're anxious and where that anxiety is coming from," she said. "What researchers think that does is that it gets it out of your brain instead of continuing to fixate on it."

Tune In

In the below podcast, Jameson goes into more detail on what math anxiety is, the number of students who experience it and how faculty members and students can mitigate the interfering effects:

Follow along with the podcast's transcript below:

Hi, I’m Katie Corder, the creative content producer at the University of Northern Colorado. I sat down with Molly Jameson, an associate professor of Educational Psychology at UNC, to discuss the topic of math anxiety.

Math anxiety isn’t a dislike of math; it’s another level above that where those who are math anxious may experience panic attack-like symptoms when dealing with math both in academic and casual settings. However, there are ways to boost confidence, control this type of anxiety and succeed.

In this podcast, Dr. Jameson goes into more detail on what math anxiety is, the number of students who experience math anxiety and how faculty members and students can mitigate the interfering effects of math anxiety.

Can you kind of describe and define math anxiety?

It's beyond just disliking math. It's an actual anxiety reaction. So, like other kinds of anxieties where you have things like racing thoughts, you know, heart racing, sweating, you’re breathing heavy. Those kinds of things also happen for people when they have math anxiety when they experienced math. So, it is both an emotion, there's cognitions or thoughts that go along with it. Things like, ‘Oh, I didn't study hard enough,’ or ‘I don't know any of this, or ‘Why am I even trying?’ as well as those body reactions but always has to do with computing, math and that can be in school. I'm like, you know, you're taking an algebra or calculus class, but it can also be in everyday life. So, you are calculating a tip at a restaurant or you are splitting up rent with your roommates. That kind of thing can be impacted by math anxiety, as well.

They incorrectly defined it as math anxiety. Can you kind of go into those other realms?

Like maybe you're just not good at math and that doesn't mean you have math anxiety or maybe you just don't like it. That doesn't mean you have math anxiety. So, disliking math, or not being good at math, are definitely not the same thing. Math anxiety takes it to another level where you would engage in like avoidance behaviors. Like you might be registered in a required math class, but you might not ever go because it causes you so much distress, or things like you might intentionally select a major in college because of the lack of math classes; whereas, somebody who dislikes math but doesn't have math anxiety might say to themselves, ‘Well, I really want to be an engineer, and so, even though I don't like math, I'm still going to take these classes because I want to be an engineer and it’s required to be an engineer to understand how to do math.’

Whereas a math anxious person would say, ‘Well, maybe I want to really be an engineer, but I'm not going to be because I have math anxiety, and it causes me so much stress that I can't take those math classes.’

Can you talk about the statistics around math anxiety?

One of the things, it's actually really hard to kind of pinpoint the number of people who have math anxiety. What we do know though is it does seem to start elementary school, but it continues and builds throughout your life. And so, it's possible for someone as a college student to never have really experienced math anxiety before, but now takes a math class that arouses those feelings of anxiety. Some of the research suggests that about 25% of people have math anxiety.

And so, that would include a lot of college students. Most of the research is actually done with college students. So, we can estimate that probably about 25% of college students have math anxiety. Now that does range like not everybody who has math anxiety has really, really high math anxiety. There are different levels:

So, a person could have low math anxiety, which is easier for them to control and overcome, and it might just interfere with like some racing thoughts or, you know, negative thoughts about themselves. With math, people could have moderate math anxiety, which is going to be a step up and is going to be more interfering with their life and their academics. And then, people will have high math anxiety and often describe like white noise in their brain: Like everything goes blank. It's like a television that's just on static. They can't think clearly, they can't breathe, and that's obviously going to really, really interfere.

We don't know how many people have each of those different levels though. It's most likely that of those 25% of people who have math anxiety, most of them have moderate math anxiety. So, there's probably fewer people who are able to control their math anxiety because it's so low and even, and also fewer people who have really, really high math anxiety that interferes with their functioning.

So, it sounds like those with high math anxiety, it almost sounds like they're experience a form of panic attack.

It is very similar actually. And what's really interesting, there was some research a few years ago that did brain imaging and showed that people who have math anxiety, when they encounter a math problem, their brain, actually the parts of your brain that are responsible for pain signals those parts of your brain turn on. So, if you have math anxiety, and I give you a math problem, your brain reacts as if you are in pain. So, it really does seem to kind of like turn on this fight-or-flight kind of response to people, and if you have low math anxiety and you see that, well your response is going to be more likely to, to fight, to stay, to deal with it because you're able to control it.

If you have high math anxiety then that part of your brain is like screaming, this hurts, I'm in pain, I'm in pain! You're going to want to get out of there, which explains some of those avoiding kinds of behaviors that people do, but it is very much like, you know, a panic attack as the result of a certain kind of anxiety.

Can you describe how just a student who has experienced any level of math anxiety can combat that math anxiety while in college?

Absolutely. So, one of the biggest things that a person who has math anxiety can do is try to build their confidence. And that seems a little counterintuitive because anxiety and confidence are pretty opposite. It's hard to feel confident when you're anxious, but when you understand how your confidence is built, it seems a lot more possible to build your confidence, to control your anxiety. So, one of the big things to do is to focus on the successes that you have had.

Think about the time when you improved your grade in a math class from a D to a C like victory doesn't mean getting 100% and being successful doesn't mean getting 100%. It means improvement. And so, focusing on those ways you've improved those times you have been successful can really, really, really help.

Also, there's some research, by a woman … Ballock is her name. But she did research on math anxiety for a long time. And one thing that she found that's been very effective is having people write about their anxiety before they do math. So, for instance, you know, you're getting ready to take a test that has to do with math. Before you take that test, take a couple of minutes, like two or three minutes, and just write about it.

Write about how you're anxious and why you're anxious and where that anxiety is coming from. And what they think that it does is it gets it out of your brain, right? So, instead of fixating on it in your brain and saying to yourself, ‘I'm so nervous, I'm going to fail. I don't know why I'm even trying.’ You get it out, and it's no longer in your brain and that allows you to perform better.

So, those two ways really building confidence and then writing about it to kind of clear out your brain have both been shown to be really effective in helping people deal with their anxiety.

Can you kind of describe what UNC faculty members who teach math can do to help those with math and science?

Absolutely. I think one of the most important things to do is recognize that math anxiety is a real thing, and that it is more than just dislike of math. I would recommend the faculty who teach courses that involve math, do a really quick pre-survey of your students. There's one question, a math anxiety scale, that just says, “On a scale of one to 10, how anxious does math make you?” And it's a really good measure of, of people that correlates to much, much longer scales. So, faculty giving students that question at the beginning helps them kind of know who are my students that might need extra confidence boost?

I have found in my own research as well as other research that timed activities make math anxious students significantly more anxious. So when you have a quiz, if you know you have five minutes to do this quiz, you've just increased your math anxious students, we've increased everyone's anxiety a little bit, but your math anxious students, their anxiety is now extra high and it's really going to interfere with their ability to show what they know. So, reducing the number of timed activities. Also, you know, one of those things I just mentioned about what the students can do with increasing their confidence.

Faculty play a big role in that. And the way that we structure our classes, the kinds of feedback that we give to students or the kinds of feedback we don't give to them, the things that we say to them in class, those kinds of things can build students' confidence or can diminish students' confidence.

Excellent. Yeah, those sound like really good points. Can you describe other resources on campus, such as the tutoring center, or other kind of math-related help?

One of the things I highly recommend for everybody, not just math anxious students, but as the Counseling Center. You know, college and graduate school and life is stressful, and if you have something that makes it extra stressful, like in this instance, math anxiety, it can be really, really helpful to talk to a person who is trained in helping people work through issues like that.

And then there's also, you know, the Tutoring Center like you mentioned. A great place to go if, if you've not taken University 101, I highly recommend people take University 101, because it talks about a lot of things that can help you control your math anxiety when it arises. Things like metacognition or planning and applying your knowledge, things like confidence, things like time management, those kinds of things can relieve some of the other pressures, so that when you start to feel anxious, you have some tools that you can draw upon.

Do you have any additional comments that I may not have asked or anything you would want to leave off of?

Just like you wouldn't let your car go, you know, with making some weird engine noise for years. Why do we let ourselves go with having these kinds of mental- or brain-related things when there are things that we can do to make our lives better and make us more successful?

And I know for me, when I learned how to control and overcome my math anxiety, I went on and got a doctoral degree and became a professor, you know, and, teach statistics and do high-level statistics, things that I never would've thought I would've done before because of my math anxiety. But, I was able to control it and overcome; whereas, if I would not have done that, I might, I likely would not be a professor. Now, I likely would not have got a Ph.D. because there's a lot of statistics involved in that and it would've made me nervous. Right? So, it's very possible to achieve success and to overcome, you just have to acknowledge that it's there and then take the steps necessary to control it.

Excellent. Well, thank you so much for your time, Dr. Jameson.

Absolutely. Thanks for having me!

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