How to Prevent Math Anxiety
Updated: Apr 17
My very first experience tutoring happened when I was in middle school math class. I tried to help some friends understand a new idea we were just shown involving x-y graphs. This new concept extended these simple x-y graphs into x-y graphs with four quadrants by including negative numbers on both the horizontal x-axis and vertical y-axis. Before we would only graph points with positive values like (2,1), but now we could graph points with negative numbers like (-1,3) and (0,-2). It's a big concept that many young students understandably have trouble with when they first encounter it.
I bring this up because the most striking memory about that day was how many of my peers said things like "I'll never get it" and "I'm just bad at math." They seemed so hopeless and defeated, even after only learning this concept for a short time. It really struck me because I always saw math being on equal footing with any other subject in school -- that is if you put enough time and effort into it then anything is learnable. Students get anxiety about any subject, but math is the most common one that I see in typical high school and college students.
Does Math Anxiety Exist?
Yes. But why? My best guess is a combination of two major factors.
Math in Everyday Life
First, math is not a subject that is naturally discussed around the home or in everyday life. Subjects like reading, writing, history, art, geography, and ecology are more likely to be discussed or be present in the topics of books, games, TV shows, and movies. These subjects often feel more familiar to students than math because they simply see more examples of them rather than the equations and graphs typically only seen in math class.
Math in Other Subjects
Second, math is usually taught in a classroom setting. Anybody who misunderstands something or needs more time to process and work can quickly feel confused, frustrated and left behind. If this happens often enough, it becomes the student's normal experience where they can develop an attitude of defeat. Math can also be considered a skill set that doesn’t often cross-over into other classes. It can seem more acceptable to be a person who doesn’t get math than to be a person that doesn’t get reading or writing.
How to Overcome Math Anxiety?
Asking for help or guidance from your course instructor is a good start. They may be able to work with you one-on-one or offer some extra resources and references to use. If your school has extra review sessions you can attend or recitations for college students, then take advantage of those when possible.
Private tutoring is the most direct and effective way to address the causes of math anxiety and build the confidence a student needs in order to master new math skills. Tutoring proceeds at the pace of the student, not at the pace of a classroom curriculum. Once a tutor gets to know a student, the instruction is customized to precisely target the gaps in the student’s understanding.
Benefits of Private Tutoring
If I know right away that math is going to be a tough subject for a student, then I usually begin by walking them through math problems and examples they already understand. Once they are comfortable, I start introducing new ideas in baby steps without moving on until the student feels they completely grasp the concept.
For example, if a student struggles with solving equations in algebra class, I’ll begin with an easy problem. I’ll put one extra complication into the equation after they solve the easy equation and see if they understand how to deal with it. Then, we go back to the easy example and put in a slightly different complication until the student can confidently handle that type too. Eventually, I’ll combine multiple complication types and show the student how to systematically solve each one until they feel confident with each equation.
Anybody can overcome math anxiety and master math skills that once seemed impossible. It's not a matter of being able to learn something or not, it's about changing their mindset to make them want to learn something new. By instilling confidence because they've successfully learned what came before it, they can move forward without fear.