Math Curse or Math Anxiety?

By Stuart, Vanessa B. | Teaching Children Mathematics, January 2000 | Go to article overview

Math Curse or Math Anxiety?


Stuart, Vanessa B., Teaching Children Mathematics


Imagine that you are a fifth-grade mathematics teacher. You have two classes totaling fifty-four students. These students all exhibit different academic and behavior levels. Some students like mathematics; others do not. Mathematics comes easily for some of your students; others struggle every step of the way. Your task is to create a challenging curriculum that improves test scores while allowing all students to be successful. That challenge is a real-life problem!

A Definition of Math Anxiety

As so eloquently stated by Mrs. Fibonacci, a fictional character from Scieszka and Smith's (1995) Math Curse, "Everything can be thought of as a math problem." I was starting to think that this particular problem was too challenging for even the greatest of problem solvers. However, as I looked more closely, I began to see that some students were academically very capable yet still struggled with mathematics. This realization was my first clue as to how to meet the mathematical needs of all students in my classroom. First, I had to determine why some students feel relaxed and competent in mathematics, whereas others feel nervous and stressed anytime that they are confronted with mathematical questions. I discovered that their distress is much more than a "curse"; it is a real affliction called "math anxiety" (Tobias 1978).

It is ironic that the subject seen as the most logical and intellectual is also the one that ignites so many passionate emotions. Many people think of mathematics as a punishment or something that induces stress (Zaslavsky 1994). Tobias describes math anxiety as a feeling of "sudden death." It is an obsession with the idea that "everyone knows that I don't understand. I'd better not draw attention to myself by asking questions." Math anxiety can even develop into the more serious math avoidance and math phobia (Tobias 1978).

Math anxiety usually arises from a lack of confidence when working in mathematical situations. Many people incorrectly assume that math anxiety and an inability to be successful in mathematics are inherited from one's parents. Several legitimate factors contribute to, and increase the severity of, this perception. For instance, gender and ethnic backgrounds are not determining factors in mathematical competence, but peers' and teachers' attitudes toward gender and ethnicity may increase or decrease one's confidence in mathematical skills (Tobias 1978). The methods used to teach mathematics skills may affect whether a student feels successful and develops mathematical self-confidence. Finally, family and peer attitudes may positively or negatively influence students' attitudes toward mathematics, which in turn affect their levels of confidence. My own hypothesis is that mathematics is like a sport: 90 percent mental--one's mathematics confidence--and 10 percent physical--one's mathematics competence in perfor ming mathematical skills.

Development of a Research Study

After observing several very math-anxious students, I conducted a survey to identify where my fifth graders fit into the continuum of mathematics confidence. I wanted to see how their own attitudes, as well as those of the people around them, affected their confidence level. I also wanted to know what teaching strategies the students thought worked best for them. If I could somehow relate mathematics to what the students enjoyed and felt successful with, then I could help them overcome or completely avoid math anxiety.

Some questions for the survey were created on the basis of factors influencing "math confidence." Other questions supported some of my own theories correlating students' interests and ability levels. I wanted both quantitative and qualitative data. Quantitative questions would provide statistical data, whereas qualitative questioning would give me the best information for adapting my mathematics curriculum.

The survey questions directed the students to select an answer and then to explain or justify their choice. …

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