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Beating Stress, Anxiety and Confusion: How to solve your Maths questions

From Robin, published on 24/05/2017 We Love Prof - UK > Academia > Maths > Overcoming your Fear of Maths

Mathematics is the cause of many frayed nerves and tears shed by students throughout their educational careers.

From primary school to college, any pupil can find himself or herself stuck, in front of seemingly impossible maths questions.

This anxiety and stress is reinforced by the fact that maths is the key discipline within the maths curriculum.

It not only allows students to understand the world around them and solve real life problems, but is a requirement for many professional careers. A good A Level in maths is a highly-prized qualification which opens up many different avenues in further education.

All this means that it’s vital to overcome a fear of maths, but how?


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How to Overcome a Fear of Maths

All students, from KS1 through to secondary school and post-A Level studies, are well-aware of the importance of maths, not only in the school curriculum at each stage of their education, but also for professional and daily life.

Students can experience psychological blocks in maths at any stage of their learning careers Mental blockages are frequent occurrences, from primary school to university (source: Superprof.fr).

Students know that they need to pay attention in maths class, and listen to their teachers.

Precisely because of this importance, maths causes stress, anxiety and panic.

In short, what is known as the “fear of maths“. At worse, it can contribute to mental blocks, anxiety disorders and panic attacks, so is no joke. Here to help are our 5 tips for overcoming your fear of maths:

  • Take private maths lessons with a private tutor. This particular type of applied maths teaching can help unblock some students who are experiencing problems. Thanks to personalised teaching resources, such a tutor, whether from a regular school or self-taught (e.g. a student or postgraduate) will know how to overcome deep-rooted blockages related to maths.
  • Use practical, relevant materials: Fear of maths can be vanquished by alternative approaches to learning, and the use of practical materials. Think about maths in terms of objects, pie charts, even pebbles, in order to understand concepts logically and overcome sticking points.
  • Beat maths anxiety by reading specialised books.
  • Identify mental blockages: These often arise as a result of a student’s family environment. The teacher can, in this case, play the role of psychologist too.
  • Go back over the basics of maths: Addition and subtraction, mental arithmetic, multiplication problems, decimals, integers, division problems, problem solving in geometry, Thales’ theorem, Pythagoras’ theorem, symmetry, circles, angles, trigonometry, algebra, arithmetic, square root…. In short, all the fundamentals needed to prepare for a maths or sciences A Level!

Explaining Fear of Maths

Experiences during primary school, secondary school, college and university can all lead to disinterest or fear in mathematics.

This can happen as a result of the anxiety, stress and disappointment of not grasping a key concept, during any maths lesson. Others simply think that trigonometry, algebra, calculus and so on are boring and “unsexy”.

What if a love of maths is something you are born with? It might appear that in order to be at home with linear equations, mathematical problem solving exercises, geometry or Pythagorean theorem, one must be a dreamer in the mould of Albert Einstein: A creative, intuitive student endowed with an ability to synthesise different areas of knowledge.

For others, maths can be painful! One study showed that the simple act of anticipating difficult maths problems can be transformed into physical pain. Equally, maths can be associated with painful past emotions. Then, there is the shame felt by a pupil, unable to solve hard equation problems on the blackboard.

All in all, this panic, anxiety, mental blockages and fear of shame at the hands of others, can cause a hopeless aversion to and disgust for maths. Maths lessons can even lead to tears, loss of self-esteem and negative emotions. There are, however, several ways to help a child who has fallen prey to this fear to once again take on and solve maths problems:

  • Highlight and praise good points,
  • Encourage his or her attempts,
  • Do not punish,
  • Listen to the causes of his or her anxiety, fear and panic,
  • Make maths fun with games, quizzes and puzzles.

Only 2% of People are Mathematically Challenged

Surprisingly few people are naturally untalented at maths. In a crowd, only a tiny minority are unable to succeed at maths (source: Unsplash).

When we take a step back and look at all the stress generated by applied mathematics, science (biology, life sciences, earth sciences), physics, chemistry, engineering, technology, it appears that maths is not that daunting or inaccessible after all.

Research has shown that the brain has the capacity to grow or shrink. It is also now known that making mistakes in mathematics allows the brain to develop accordingly: To learn from its mistakes, in fact. So while anxiety and panic may not be rational, stressful and distressing mistakes can cause the brain to become smarter. Getting mathematical problems wrong actually gives the brain the chance to multiply neurons and connections.

Better yet, thanks to an experiment carried out by Jo Boaler, we now know that only 2 to 3% of the population actually experiences genuine difficulties in learning maths . The rest are able to overcome stress and solve maths problems, including high-level ones. We should therefore try to transform this feeling of panic and anxiety into “good stress”: Something capable of stimulating progress in maths.

Boaler has proven that with constant pressure under time constraints, the brain is not able to function properly. By eliminating the time restriction, students are able to make significant advances in algebra questions, fractions problem solving, geometry, mental arithmetic, prime number calculation, and so on.

Forget your Maths Problems by Having Fun

To eliminate the element of pressure, it is also possible to make maths fun using math games.

Many websites already cater to this specific learning approach with maths problem solving games for kids and adults:

Enthusiasm for maths is an unfortunately rare phenomenon. “Isn’t maths great!” …is a rarely-heard phrase (source: Jisc)

There are also great maths apps featuring problem solving activities and fun maths problems to help you beat the stress, anxiety or panic you feel when learning maths, including Math Master, Edupad and iTooch.

Excellent free online maths resources for students and teachers can be found at Cambridge University’s NRICH Maths. Another good resource is Funmaths.

The Theory and Practice of Re-learning

If the “learning maths is fun” method has not convinced you, then maybe re-learning maths will appeal more.

Many would say that learning maths is like learning a new language. If so, then neglecting to acquire the basics of this language will remain a fundamental drawback. It takes practice, lots of practice, to gain fluency in this language. If this remains undone, then the student should waste no time in re-learning, whether before starting a bachelor’s or master’s degree, or a PhD, at university or elsewhere.

Private tutors and private maths courses are highly recommended in this endeavour. Others prefer to self-teach, using relevant books, websites and applications. Either way, some tips to put into practice to completely eliminate feelings of anguish, anxiety and panic are:

  • Use flashcards,
  • Study past papers,
  • Learn maths with Lego.

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