Decreasing Math Anxiety in College Students

By Perry, Andrew B. | College Student Journal, June 2004 | Go to article overview
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Decreasing Math Anxiety in College Students

Perry, Andrew B., College Student Journal

This paper examines the phenomenon of mathematics anxiety in contemporary college and university students. Forms of math anxiety range from moderate test anxiety to extreme anxiety including physiological symptoms such as nausea. For each of several types of math anxiety, one or more case studies is analyzed. Selected strategies for coping with math anxiety are included. Some students' own ideas are presented along with analysis from leading experts in the subject of math anxiety.


Math anxiety is an extremely common phenomenon among college and university students today. Steven G. Krantz describes an extreme form of this syndrome: "Math anxiety is an inability by an otherwise intelligent person to cope with quantification, and more generally, mathematics. Frequently the outward symptoms of math anxiety are physiological rather than psychological. When confronted with a math problem, the sufferer has sweaty palms, is nauseous, has heart palpitations, and experiences paralysis of thought ... this quick description does not begin to describe the torment ..." (Krantz, 1999). Of course, most college students don't experience this level of terror. Many do, however, suffer from the problem in some form or other. Approximately 85% of this author's students who take introductory mathematics classes claim to feel at least mild math anxiety, according to surveys administered during the first week of the semester.

Most teachers of mathematics would agree that math anxiety stems primarily from students' fears of failure and feeling of inadequacy. In most cases, math anxiety is not extreme or overwhelming, yet it continues to haunt most students throughout their mathematical careers. Although no classification can be entirely precise, this paper will attempt to classify and analyze different classes of students affected by the syndrome.

Perhaps the mildest variation of math anxiety is moderate test anxiety. Very frequently students report that they understand their mathematics class quite well during ordinary classes and while doing homework assignments, but panic and fail to realize their potential during exams. In one student's words,

   "I feel confident when the professor
   is reviewing ... I think to myself, 'I
   got this stuff, this is easy'. But when
   it comes to me taking the test, I
   somehow forget most of the concepts
   that I had known so well. This
   causes me to panic".

Certainly the most common form of math anxiety is the moderate and intermittent variety found in a student who has mixed feelings towards the subject. A classic case is "Jason," who writes:

   "Throughout my mathematics experiences
   I have come to find that I
   have math anxiety. What I mean by
   this is that I am not thrilled about
   math and quite frankly it frustrates
   me. Don't get me wrong. I like math
   when I get the right answers but
   when I don't it's another story. Math
   is one of the most important things
   you can learn in life but the hard
   part is learning it and remembering
   it. All the formulas and methods to
   do different kinds of problems are
   mind boggling. I would have to say
   that the most frustrating thing about
   math is doing a long problem. A
   math problem that has many equations
   and answers which takes a long
   time such as a word problem. The
   worst is when you do everything
   right except one little part in the
   beginning and it messes up the
   whole problem."

Often math anxiety starts at a young age. If a student has a single insensitive math teacher, that can create a recurring anxiety problem which may be difficult to overcome. Jessica is typical of a large number of students, in that she is haunted by memories of one particular mathematics class that she took long ago. Jessica describes her experience:

   "My math anxiety started because of
   a teacher that I had for math in the
   third grade. 

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