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Reducing Math Anxiety: What Can Teachers Do?

We've written about math anxiety on this blog before—how it can be brought on by early negative math experiences and, more recently, its link to genetic factors. Research says math anxiety can lead to a decrease in working memory and that girls taught by a female teacher with high math anxiety are more likely to endorse gender-related stereotypes about math ability. (The same is not true for boys.)

But what does all this mean for the math classroom? What can teachers do to combat math anxiety, whether or not they have it themselves?

Psychology professors Sian L. Beilock of the University of Chicago and Daniel T. Willingham of the University of Virginia have some ideas. Writing in the latest issue of American Educator, a publication by the American Federation of Teachers, they offer recommendations based on their research, including:

  1. Focus math teacher training on pedagogy rather than concepts. "Researchers have found that a course on how to teach math concepts was more effective in addressing math anxiety among pre-service teachers than a course focused directly on the math concepts themselves," write Beilock and Willingham.  
  2. Stop giving timed math tests. "There are likely several reasons why alleviating time pressure makes math anxiety less of a problem, from reducing worries about not finishing in time, to giving students the time and space to work through their answers."
  3. Be careful when consoling students who are struggling. "[S]aying, for example, 'It's OK, not everyone can be good at these types of problems'... sends a subtle message that validates a student's opinion that he's not good at math, and can lower a student's motivations and expectations for future performances," they write. Instead, say to students, "Yes, this work is challenging, but I know that with hard work you can do it!"

The second suggestion—to scrap timed math tests—is much more controversial than it may seem. Remember those timed multiplication tests you took in elementary school—the large grid of problems you had one or two or three minutes to work your way through? Many teachers not only still give those, but consider them a staple of good math instruction. See the mix of comments below this Education Week Commentary piece in which Jo Boaler, a math education professor at Stanford University, similarly called for their elimination.

As for the third suggestion, on consoling students, that one sounds a lot like Carol Dweck's work on mindsets. She writes that students who see intelligence as a fixed trait do not perform as well as those who view it as something that can be improved with effort. 

Would be great to get some feedback in the comments section below on the researchers' suggestions. Do they seem correct? Feasible? What did the authors miss? 

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