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Mental Block in Maths? Here’s How to Get Unstuck

From Robin, published on 26/05/2017 We Love Prof - UK > Academia > Maths > How to Avoid Psychological Blockages in Mathematics

Is any school subject the cause of as much anguish, in students and teachers alike, as mathematics?

We don’t think so.

Each of us can recount at least one bad experience with maths, some of us outright fear it!

There are, however, those for whom the problem runs deeper, to psychological blocks. But what is the best way to learn maths?

How best to get on in maths class? The following are our five top tips.

Anxiety and Panic

Mathematics is of real importance to any student’s school career, at least until the stage of choosing a specialism. It nonetheless has the unfortunate habit of causing upset in students, even nightmares. The famous “fear of maths” is a very real phenomenon, and can appear with little warning in boys or girls.

Being such a central discipline, when a student fails to comprehend a particular element of maths…  panic strikes! – often to the point of causing real anguish.

From then on, the problem becomes psychological and cannot be overcome through discipline or impatience on the part of parents and teachers.

The psychological blockage must then be stopped in its tracks by using engaging approaches and tools that target the difficulties in question.

5 Tips to Defeat a “Fear of Maths”

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1) Take Individual Maths Lessons

Fear of maths can result from one or more of several factors that can preoccupy the mind of a student:

  • Difficulty in understanding a specific maths problem;
  • A teacher who is impatient, not open to discussion, or even intimidating;
  • Shyness, preventing the student from speaking up in class or talking to the teacher;
  • Too much pressure from parents;

When these four elements conspire to overwhelm a student, the inevitable happens. From there, the best way to “unblock” the student is to enlist the services of a private maths tutor.

Care must be taken in choosing a tutor, however, as some may be too inexperienced to deal with “maths panic“; others may lack the skills to deal with psychological blockages.

It is therefore recommended to take your time when choosing a private maths tutor.

It is also a good idea to contact a tutor who specialises in this type of maths class.

If you find maths difficult, why not try private lessons? Does maths leave you scratching your head? (source: Visualhunt)

A student fed up with maths can benefit enormously from maths courses with a private tutor.

A class of thirty or so students can be really intimidating, as we mentioned earlier, and in a group setting teachers have little time to devote to any one particular student. “Private” or “individual” lessons, on the other hand, give the troubled student one or more hours of the teacher’s undivided attention.

This is all the time the teacher needs to identify the blockage or blockages and, most importantly, how to solve them. Where the “school model” of education focuses above all on the group and the math curriculum, private tutoring instead provide a one-on-one setting in which teacher and student are more equal.

Seated beside him on a chair, rather than in front at the board, the student does not feel the weight of hierarchy that normally separates him from his teacher. Such a setting encourages more free and open dialogue, and reduces or even eliminates shyness.

So, while maths classes may represent a certain expense for parents, they are also a clear “investment in the future” of a child.

Private tutors can, in just a few lessons, identify the origins of a blockage, and its remedies: Something your child’s regular school teacher may never be able to do.

2) Use Practical Materials

The language of maths with its lines of formulas and complex numbers can sometimes be challengingly abstract for the pupil in difficulty, regardless of age.

The need to learn this new language and its specialised vocabulary can also be at the root of a mental blockage. To remedy this, Anne Siety, an educational psychologist regularly cited as an authority on the matter, proposes the following easy-to-implement solution: She suggests using what are called “practical materials”.

What are practical materials?

Instead of giving the student lines of text and formulas, why not use what comes to hand to explain maths concepts and solve problems or puzzles: Pebbles and marbles for addition and subtraction and solving equations, or modelling clay to give shape to fractions and pie charts!

Through this approach, you will also see that a photographic memory is an envious trait that is highly effective for learning maths.

For some, maths is like poetry Mathematics: The poetry of logical ideas! (Source: Lifehack)

The playful side of this method is one of its great merits, and it is precisely on such approaches that we should call as a first resort when a student finds him or herself in need of help with maths.

Copying out figures and solving equations using these practical materials can rapidly show benefits. Siety adds:

“This can only happen if the teacher is committed to it. When I cast my mind back on happy maths memories, I remember passionate, engaging teachers, including one who gave a maths lesson entirely based on soft caramels! The personality of the teacher is really important in maths lessons.”

3) Overcoming your Fear of Maths with a Specialised Textbook

When the school method fails a student, his maths books and homework assignments are no more than a representation of his suffering and psychological blockage.

When even parents are powerless to reason with their child, it is worth considering books dedicated to the subject of the fear of maths.

You could first try a book of supplementary mathematical exercises, which address the problems in question via another method of teaching.

Such a book, with its own visual identity, could take on the role of a symbol of freedom in maths.

Try a new maths book for a new approach to the subject Specialised textbooks can stimulate learning in flagging students (source: pixbay).

There are also many books which focus on the theme of blockages in maths and the irrational fear they evoke. One such book by Anne Siety: “Who’s Afraid of Maths?“, published by Denoël in February 2012, and reissued in August 2013.

A specialist on this topic, she explains her different theories on blockages and how to disentangle them.

She argues, in particular, that the work of breaking down a mental block requires one to work on “maturing as a person”. Beyond the need for comprehension of this psychological aspect, the author shares with her readers practical solutions and other tricks to help the pupil move beyond apprehension and anxiety.

4) Identify a Psychological Blockage

Nobody is really bad at mathematics“, is something students regularly hear from their teachers. However, students, overwhelmed by difficulties, struggle to believe this assertion.

It’s important to remember, though, that a student who is mediocre or moderate today can become exceptional tomorrow.

Before arriving there, however, it is necessary to take the time to identify the origin of the psychological blockage that is holding the student back.

Siety argues that a blockage in mathematics often comes about as a result of a personal or family problem. A very Freudian way of understanding the issue, perhaps, but one that this educational psychologist has seen evidence for in many cases.

It's important not to hide from a student's problems with maths Don’t shut your eyes to your problems with maths! (Source: Pixbay)

In abstract terms, maths resonates less with us that other subjects because we rarely apply it to our lives outside of school, in contrast to English, foreign languages or geography, for example. Yet, most students’ relationships with maths can best be described as “emotional”.

The fact that most of us can recite several painful anecdotes related to this discipline is not mere coincidence!

Siety finds that it is the subject that, more than others, leads to anguish and personal problems.

“I have gradually become convinced that if a child has problems in maths, it is not because he lacks intelligence, rather, that something internal prevents him accessing his ideas and using his thinking skills. This is related to his unique personal history”, she says.

According to Siety, to identify a specific problem in maths is to draw a parallel with one’s own personal story. It is an essential step, but one that must stay relevant, in order to unblock problems and find the answers.

In short, you already have all the keys to success in maths within you.

5) Re-learning the Basics of Maths

When a student finds herself stuck when attempting more advanced mathematics, it is not necessarily because she has reached her limits. It could equally be because she lacks a sufficiently strong foundation in the common core of basic maths skills. Does she understand all the instructions, and the terms used, for example?

If not, then this block can be easily overcome. Superprof advises, for example, emphasising learning the lexicon of maths. The goal?:

To carry out a complete and thorough revision of the basic definitions, and to learn them completely.

  • How can maths be re-learnt?
  • What exactly is a factor? A ratio?
  • An abscissa?
  • A square root?

Alternative methods for learning maths can give great results. Try taking a practical approach to maths learning (source: Pixbay).

While this approach may seem rather simplistic – after all, it is – your psychological block may just be equally so!

In addition to this revision of old and familiar themes, like adding and subtracting, arithmetic, trigonometry, algebra and geometry, it can also be useful to review the major themes already addressed in school.

Equally, it is also possible to learn maths while having fun!

Be sure to check that you have correctly learnt all the basics (multiplication, dividing, probability etc.) in order to ensure a solid foundation.

And to keep the knowledge fresh in your mind, be sure to use it regularly, in your work, studies or daily life.

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