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Math Anxiety

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When it comes to mathematics, choking under pressure is more than just a feeling. Researchers say that "math anxiety" affects academic achievement by disrupting students' short-term memory and their ability to block out distractions or irrelevant information. What's more, performance pressure may hit the best students the hardest, resulting in uncharacteristically low scores for top students.

Today, the issue is receiving renewed attention from scholars and others who believe that understanding the causes and implications of math anxiety is critical to improving achievement for many students. Researchers are finding that students with math anxiety tend to rush through problems and encounter difficulty on those that require multiple steps.

What do you think? What are the causes of math anxiety? How should educators work with students to help them overcome their lack of confidence in this subject?


44 Comments

Contrast our failure in teaching math with our success in teaching reading. Math has fewer rules, and rarer exeptions to those rules, so math should be easier than reading. Why is reading easier? Quoting from http://www.projectpro.com/ICR/Research/Phonics/Summary.htm:
"Any curriculum whose early reading experiences consist only of exposing children to ordinary literature will almost certainly induce a high failure rate, and consequently lead to initial discouragement and confusion among students." Expecting students to jump into algebra with only the curriculum that currently passes for pre-algebra, is equivalent to asking students to read MacBeth after learning the alphabet. I've seen schools penalize students for thinking out loud, because the schools value memorization over reason. Memorization doesn't work with algebra, but reasoning does. To eliminate anxiety, ALLOW students to think, from the beginning.

I don't know the causes of math anxiety for other people, but I think I know why I developed it.

In the 1950s when I was in school, elementary math ("arithmetic")was taught by rote: do this, this and this and you will get the right answer. Do this and you can check your answer. Mathematical thinking was not required. I am ashamed to say that I did not understand our base-ten system until I was an adult. If I had to "carry the one" into the hundreds place, I think I thought it was a "one" as in one banana. Until the eighth grade, I received good grades in "arithmetic," but once I was in the ninth grade and was expected to think mathematically, I panicked. After that year I avoided math like the plague. As an adult, I studied it again and found it to be well within my capabilities.

To prevent this from happening to other children, it is imperative that we stress mathematical thinking from the very beginning. Even a young child can and should understand that another way to say 182 is 100+80+2. In my opinion, current instruction of elementary mathematics stresses memorization of facts as well as understanding. Both are critical for the prevention of math phobia and failure.

From the rate of responses here, it seems that math causes too much anxiety to even discuss the problem! It would useful to hear more personal stories like Linda's.

I can add a personal story. I am probably just a hair younger than Linda. When I was in second grade a terribly exciting thing happened in my district--we were being taught "new math!" We were part of some experimental project, I believe. We felt very important. Not only were we this special group doing something new, but the something new included learning things (like sets, the commutative, associative and distributive properties, place value and bases) that people used to think that little kids couldn't understand.

I will always believed that this saved me from Linda's experience. I hated rote memorization. When we got to fifth grade we had a teacher who had held on to the "old" math books so that she could teach us long division in the way that she was most comfortable with. I remember dreary days, smudged fingers and erasing holes in the yellow paper. By the end of the day my clothes were in disarray from fidgeting and I was tired of the trips back to the teacher's desk only to hear, no, that's wrong, go back again.

I was so happy when I got to algebra where you were multiplying a x b and the answer wasn't going to depend on the ability to remember what 6 x 7 is (I don't remember right now--I still have to add 6 more to 6 x 6--but I know how to do that and why it works!).

I get so discourage today when I see my son bring home worksheets aimed at memorizing standard algorithms (that's pretty fancy new word I have recently learned), without ever getting to an understanding of what he is doing (like Linda's carry the banana example)--or more importantly, where on earth he could ever use it.

The relationship between portuguese students and Maths is also a negative one. A high percentage of students do not complete high school simply because they are not able to pass national Math exames.
My view is that something is very wrong with the way Math is taught at schools. Teachers should try to understand the individual students' difficulties and begin by improving their self-esteem by assigniing tasks they can successfully complete. Learning is a continuous prgressive process. No one can learn a subject without some previous knowledge of this same subject. Learning Maths starts at pre-school. What are pre-school and elementary school teachers' attitudes towards numbers and logical thinking? Were they good Math students?
Success leads to success. If teachers plan their lessons to be really student centred I'm sure results will come out diferently.
Attention should also be given to students' reading compreehnsion skills. Do students really understand what Matth teachers want them to do at school?

On a very basic level, I am always blown away that members of our American culture so readily excuses that they (or their children) cannot do math. Yet they would never admit that they can't read. When mathematics become difficult due to the length of the algorithm or the meticulous nature of problem solving, our children (as well as many adults) determine that it is too much trouble to finish the job. Immediate gratification is a high priority for us.
As a 30-year classroom teacher, I do agree that many teachers who teach mathematics fail to offer students the connections between such topics as measurement or probability and working with fractions, or using the distributive property when they multiply mixed numbers in order to prepare them for multiplying polynomials in the algebra classes. Without some knowledge of the "big picture" in the continuum of the curriculum, as educators we cheat our children of the beauty and magic of mathematics.

I can add another personal story. My 9 year old son has been subjected to timed math facts tests since the middle of first grade. He had barely learned the concept of addition and subtraction, when his school began administering timed tests.

Their goal? Increase the number of students that perform well on the computation section of the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills.

Timed math facts tests are administered twice each week and reward those students who excel at rote memorization. Students who pass the tests have their names posted on a "Math Star" bulletin board in the classroom. This is supposed to motivate the students who haven't passed the tests yet.

Unfortunately, rote memorization is not one of my son's strengths and he cannot pass these tests in the time allowed. He now feels like he is "stupid" in math and has developed a full blown anxiety disorder surrounding math. The reality is, he's very competent in math and does, for the most part, have his math facts memorized. What he can't do, is produce under pressure. He is also a bit of a perfectionist and doesn't want to get a math problem wrong...so he slows down to ensure accuracy.

School has effectively taught him to avoid math and to believe that he can't do it.


Julie - ouch. Can you give your son the counter-perspective that his mind, which is more important than his grades, is good?

Almost 2 years ago my daughters (4 at the time) scored in the 91st and 96th percentile in math reasoning. Last month we were told that our daughters scored in the 42nd and 38th percentile in math. I know daughters didn't drop 50 percentiles in under 2 years. The difference is that this was not a test of reasoning, this was a test of memorization and my daughters lost credit for thinking out loud. In a related experience, one of my daughters scored in the 95th percentile in verbal reasoning and in the 53rd percentile in non-verbal performance sections of the WPPSI IQ test. This difference is so large and rare that the administrator of the test told us that she would have difficulties in performance type tasks such as math. For reference, this is the same child that scored in the 91st percentile in math reasoning on the same day. Again, what's the difference? The performance section of the IQ test was timed, and this is a highly reflective (read: s-l-o-w) child. Quote from Dr. Linda Silverman "if a child of 12 solves every Performance item correctly on the WISC-III [same test as WPPSI-III for older students] but gets no bonus points for speed, he or she would score below average on every subtest".

Since I am not a fan of testing, I will mention that I only subjected my daughters to this in an attempt to obtain a more appropriate placement for them than the school would allow. My attempt failed. I find myself in the position of "un-schooling" at the end of the day, so that my daughters will know that our family's priorities are different from the school's.

On the topic of memorization, I have a horrible memory. I work with math every hour of every day in my job. I get 6x7 the same way Margo does, I get all the 8's by double the number 3 times (7x8 => 7 -> 14 -> 28 -> 56, etc), and when I need the sin(pi) I draw a sin wave and look over to pi. Since I can do this pretty quickly, I'd probably do OK on a timed test. If I were penalized for reasoning, I would bomb. Luckily for me, many of the high stakes tests don't (well, didn't when I took them) penalize for reasoning. My quantitative and analytical GRE scores were in the 700's.

If your children are good at math reasoning but not at memorization, look into some of the "gifted" programs (see http://www.hoagiesgifted.org/). They get that math is more than memorized facts. Most have entrance requirements that require a test score, but there are some out there that don't. These programs may help your kids see that there are segments of society that have different priorities than the school, and value and respect their reasoning ability.

Julie--We have had the same exact situation as you. Our son has a math anxiety due to timed tests that began on the first day of 1st grade. Their idea of motivating him was to place a timer on his desk (only his). This only increased the anxiety. 7 years later he still struggles with math and believes that he is stupid. He knows the concepts and does well on assignments, but can not do well on the tests. Unfortunately, our schools and society value tests rather than ability and intelligence.
On the bright side, he has excellent verbal and reading/analytical skills. His reasoning and critical thinking surpasses many of my college students. These are the skills our education system should be valuing--not test taking. Unfortunately, NCLB is only worsening the situation.

I've been teaching elementary mathematics for 16 years. For the past four I have been teaching K-5 Title 1 Math. I was an exceptional math student in elementary school, but could never connect arithmetic to algebra, nor was I ever shown how the two were even remotely connected. As a result, I received an O5 on the ACT in math. This closed the door as far as pursuing a career in nursing. I've made it a passion to have the children truly understand what they are doing. In my humble opinion, we would be much better off by completely getting rid of paper and pencil arithmetic until the 2nd grade. This "math anxiety" starts as early as kindergarten. Let's encourage a more positive attitude in our students when they are very very small. We also need to prepare our teachers in early arithmetic to more deeply understand the subject rather than requiring these teachers to take high-level mathematics courses for instructing young children.

I work with the math anxiety issue by applying the principles of study outlined in Lewis Carroll's introduction, "To Learners", in his logic textbook. He recognizes two types of subjects, "easy" and "hard", or, as I think of them, content and technique subjects. Math is a technique subject. That is, students don't learn about mathematics, but actually do the mathematics. When we complain about rote memorization, it is because math is being incorrectly treated as a content topic. So, essentially, math anxiety is related to stage fright. When we do math, we are performing, not merely recalling. The coursework and instruction needs to be structured as in athletics, writing, or music studies with lots of practice. To this end, Lewis Carroll gave three rules of study if one is to have success. First, no browsing through the textbook as later topics will make one very nervous as they appear quite difficult. This means sticking to the topic at hand and not discussing anything advanced. Second, if one cannot solve a problem, then try again. If not then, then try again. If not then, put the work away because you are tired. This means, not requiring homework the next day. In my case, it means not giving homework at all, unless it is review. I have at least two days of guided practice for each new topic lectured. Last of all, that one should not move on until one can easily work most, if not all, of the assigned problems. This means using mastery teaching methods. So I edit the tests, then hand it back to be redone until complete. (Grades are determined by the number of redoes necessary for completion.) I have discovered that violating any of these three principles to be fatal to the learning process.

If a child is found to display "Math Anxiety" what can be listed under Test Accommodations: and (or) Management Needs: on the child's IEP to alert the math teacher as well as others that this child may need additional attention.

The worst thing that could happen to a student who is mathematically challenged is a teacher to tell them, "It's just division." To a person who cringes when the "m" word is spoken, nothing is just "division" or whatever mathematical operation is being performed. I am mathematically challenged, but I was able to overcome my anxiety with my attitude. I told myself, even though at the time I felt I was lying to myself, I can conquer math, and math will not conquer me. I decided to stop speaking the obvious, and began speaking what I wanted to happen. I taught math to elementary students and college students. I tell my college students that I am a fake math teacher, but those students walk out of my class knowing how to work math problems by changing their confession. I teach math like I learn math--in steps. I do not do shortcuts because a math challenged person need to know "why" and "how" to everything. I also give written notes as well as examples with each step. It's time consuming but worth it. Now my students and I say that math is our challenging subject.

Years ago, I stopped looking at math as math and started looking at it as a tool of logic, a tool that just happens to use numbers to get its point across. That changhed my attitude towards teaching the material- I became "obsessed" with teaching kids HOW to think and not WHAT to think. I began to approach things from the bigger picture and focus onto how seemingly non-connected points of knowledge (old way) connect into forming this intriguing thought (new way). The kids responded positively when they began to see that knowing how to do something could be applied to any similar situation (SAT and/or ACT) and not just one specific example (homework).

My point is that I have observed that kids are not learning HOW to think but mainly to memorize and regurgitate the information. It's like they're plugging their noses while swallowing; they'll get the food down but won't experience its taste.

The other problem I have encountered is parents who unknowingly pass on to their kids a dislike of the material. I used to ask parents at Back-to-School Night, "How many of you hate math? Okay, how many have told your kids that you do or have told them that it's okay to not know it because you don't know it?" The hands go up, and the faces drop when I say, "Thank you for two things: 1- making my job harder, and 2- keeping me employed." Parents, you are not the only problem, though.

I chose to earn a degree and teach mathematics for the reason that I did not understand it coming out of high school and wanted to understand it. I have found that my appreciation of math has increased every year I teach it due to exposure and having to learn a, periodically, new method of delivery! My fear is the high number of one or the other types of teachers in our classrooms today: "experts" in math who can't talk down to a kid's level of understanding, or those tecahers who have to teach it and don't fully appreciate it- thus allowing their biases to have a negative impact on the students. There are classes in college to teach methods of reading instruction; there should be similar for that of mathematics instruction.

Thank you for your time, and please forgive my spelling and grammar errors! :)

Anxiety really shows its face by the time children reach 3rd grade. Math anxiety at this age is simply a result of students questioning their ability to succeed. This is a result that is so simple to understand that I am amazed how teachers do not realize the main problem that leads to math anxiety.

When I was in school I thought I was terrible at math. I could do what the teachers showed me to do but I never understood WHY we were doing it. I left high school and even college feeling that something big was missing from my math education. I earned my BS in biology and started teaching and now have a master's in physics, so obviously I can "do" math. But it wasn't until I started teaching physics that I started TRULY understanding math and why we do what we do with it.

I believe that too much math is taught as "follow the algorithm" rote memorization with little or no time spent on understanding the reasoning behind the algorithm. Students see columns and rows of numbers and operators and just do the same old thing day in and day out. How boring!

It is time for a radical change in the way math is taught. Teach the basics REALLY well using manipulatives and story problems, do away with timed tests (do you really want your local engineer calculating the math for the local highway bridge as fast as he can?), and use REAL-LIFE problems instead of drill-and-kill. Give math MEANING.

Much of the problem can be traced to our lack of respect for the stages in students' development--and specifically to our misguided eagerness to skip the concrete stages in math instruction. I've done math workshops with math teachers (I'm not making this up) who think that 3/8 and 1/3 are the same because they look similar when you cut up a circle. They obviously never spent time cutting things into fourths, thirds, and eighths. Skipping directly to the abstract stage of working with pencil and paper creates students and teachers who feel hopeless about understanding math.
Here's a little experiment I've been doing for years with college graduates with depressing results. Try asking your friends to solve this problem in their heads: Your grandmother has two-thirds of a pumpkin pie in her refrigerator. You ask if you and your brother can have some pie. Sure, she says--you can have half of what's there. How much pie can you have?
RARE is the college graduate who can visualize two thirds of a pie and can confidently state that half of two is one--the answer is one-third.
Here's another: What's one-third of three-eighths?
Everyone knows that one-third of three is one. But one-third of three-eighths? They need pencil and paper to figure it out.
Let's encourage children to count and cut before we set pencil-and-paper problems for them.

"Math Anxiety" is another of those made-up maladies designed by psychologists and psychiatrists to explain lack of student competence in terms that open the door to more pharmaceuticals and ever lower standards leading to even more psychological terminology and an ever-widening range of stupidity and ignorance. Here's a question from an eighth-grade exam from Indiana: "How long does the rope need to be for a horse to graze a half acre of grass?" Anxiety has nothing to do with it -- competence does.

By the way, the test question above was from 1888. -- WH

"Math Anxiety" is, in fact, very real. I'm not sure what the big mystery is though. Several causes of math anxiety are listed right here in this forum within the testimonials and observations of Cheryl, Linda, Julie, Kathy, and others.

Rote memorization, algorithms, timed tests, assigning the even numbered problems #2-40 on page 45 in your math book (because the answers to the odd numbered problems are in the back of the book!), and the list goes on-- these are all conducive to the development of math-related anxiety. These methods of math instruction do not promote high levels of thinking (only "recall") or constructing knowledge. They are each very teacher-directed, rather than student-centered (as math instruction should be). Furthermore, an individual's math knowledge must be constructed by that individual rather than being directly taught something that is based on someone else's understanding (refer to Jean Piaget's Three Types of Knowledge for a detailed explanation).

Linda's "carry the one" banana example not only brings back my own not-so-happy memories of childhood experiences with math, it's also a testimonial of the potential damage caused by teaching/learning algorithms. For example, let's say I'm a third grader solving a 3 digit subtraction problem. Let's say the problem is 346-259=_. Assuming most of you were taught to work it out in the same way that I was, what will my 1st step be? Stack it! And keep those columns even! Ok...which side do I start on? Oh yeah, the "ones" place. Hmmm...6-9...=3? Oops, I remember that my teacher said I can't subtract a "bigger" number from a "smaller" number. Okay, I can do this. I have to borrow to turn the 6 into 16...which number am I supposed to cross out? Okay, here we go-- cross out this, put a one by that...Uh-oh, what was the problem again? I don't remember what is I'm supposed be doing! And we're off to daydream land!! Or maybe even "shaving-my-pencil-with-my-scissors land"!

Anyway, you get the point. After reflecting on this all too common scenario, which is being replayed daily in a classroom near you, is it all too unreasonable to think that the student might even completely forget what it is that she/he is actually doing? The bottom line is that the use of algorithms (such as the rules for carrying and borrowing) focuses the learner's attention on steps, procedural tasks such as where to place the "1", and individual digits/places rather than allowing them to focus on whole number operations and make use of their knowledge of number relationships.

Simply put, they can't see the forest because of all of the trees! And we're only on 3 digit subtraction-- won't algebra be fun!? First Graders Reinvent Arithmetic, by Constance Kamii is a good research-based, teacher-friendly text that is full of suggestions for developmentally appropriate early math instruction that produces "thinkers" rather than "doers".

JD, I will look for that book. There's another book I've been reading called "Nurturing At-Risk Youth in Math and Science" edited by Randolf Tobias with a chapter by Everard Barrett. Dr. Barrett details a typical description of the long division algorithm where the language is inconsistent with prior learning, and often wrong. You're example reminded me of that chapter.

Cheryl, I got the book title crossed up with the title of one of C. Kamii's videos. Young Children Reinvent Arithmetic: Implications of Piaget's Theory is the actual title of the book. I'll keep an eye out for the Tobias book. Thanks!

"Math Anxiety" is another of those made-up maladies..."

My son isn't making-up the tears, flushed face, shaking, racing heart,sweating palms and nausea he experiences when faced with yet another timed math facts test. He isn't making-up the fear he feels on Tuesday and Thursday mornings when he knows timed math facts are taking place at school.
He isn't making up the low-self esteem and the lack of confidence he feels when he looks at the bulletin board of "Math Stars" and knows his name will not appear with the "winners."

Students who fear math are far from incompetent. Nor are they stupid and ignorant. They have been taught to fear math by school systems, teachers, and administrators who push and demand children perform like show ponies on tests that do not accurately measure a child's ability to think.

Math anxiety is a very real problem for many students. NCLB has created an atmosphere where memorization and regurgitation is rewarded and true knowledge and the ability to think and reason is no longer valued.

Math anxiety certainly does exist (it’s a more toxic and long-lasting relative of test anxiety), and it troubles women more than men (for sociological reasons). It is a learned behavior/response. It often begins at the elementary school level or at the crucial jump from arithmetic to algebra, and it is produced by inadequate teacher-preparation programs which are unable to correct the poor math experiences that teacher-candidates bring with them.

But, best of all, it can be overcome.

The long term cure is to improve mathematics teaching at all levels, get away from “drill and kill” as the central mode of instruction (except for some essential fundamentals - but not all that many), open students’ minds to the satisfactions of problem-solving across a variety of topics and techniques that emphasize real-world applications, and do a better job of producing excellence in an equitable manner. Asian schools manage this, with no evidence of a math gene in these populations.

The short-term cure for individuals, even adults, is to find the way back to the point the math trolley went off the tracks for them and take whatever corrective action seems appropriate. For kids currently in school, remediation is usually more of the same lousy instruction that got them off the track to begin with. Extra effort will be required to find something better. This is complicated by the fact that many people believe that success in math is a natural gift, which it isn’t. Breaking such common expectations, for both students and teachers, is a major challenge. Community colleges offer some good opportunities for adults to put their anxieties behind them.

Nobody Left Behind - One Child's Story About Testing was written to allow middle grade students to realize just what is happening to them when test anxiety hits. It might be helpful to students, teachers, and parents in this time of great accountability in education.

I just returned from a teachers convention in San Francisco and saw the extreme pressure teachers are facing under the NCLB Act. Teachers are now unable to use their best teaching skills to reach students because they are required to be so test focused. Congress needs to hear from teachers in specific detail what they are up against.

Imagine an education world in which all curriculum and teaching is considered, discussed, balanced and planned as a whole, not as desparate parts and connects with all parents directly. A world where in - school and out- of -school merge into a whole. Imagine education and curriculum as thematically integrated and as Dan Tanner at Rutgers Graduate School of Education oft noted so well: " as an Emergent Process " not set and fixed forever.

Consider too, the realization, only recently being advanced, that "school" for most young people is still a 6 hour per day, 5 days per week and 9 months per year enterprise. This leaves young people with, as the Carnegie Council On Adolescent Development noted in A Matter Of Time, Risk and Opportunity In The Non School Hours,"large amounts of "discretionary time".

Consider this in light of the National Institute On Out of School Time (NIOST) Fact Sheets issued each January as well as meager USOE support for the after-school period, even with "increased funding" while Millions of Tax $ are spent on the Middle East driven by faulty logic, inept political will and leadership, and inappropriate actions totally ignoring the United Nations, and, as well on "presidential campaigns." "Campaign Reform" and "Special Interest Reform" are both jokes. Who is kidding who?

Perhaps the nation would benefit if more in Washington heeded Senator Chuck Hagel's call: " If you cannot do the work the people sent you here to do, you ought to go back home and sell shoes."

Recall the Bumper Sticker: "IT Will Be a Great Day When Schools Have All The Funds They Need To Do Their Job and The Defense Department Has To Hold A Bake Sale To Build a Missile or Armament."

Think as well about the current emphasis on STEM education ( Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) and how only the "S&M" are being promoted while technology is older than both science and mathematics and is the core and base of engineering as well as our total human society. Consider that Both technological and engineering principles, activities and materials offer the singular and exceptional opportunity for direct engagement and abundant opportunities for actual engaged learning of mathematics and science- in contexts and not as isolated " algorithms or principles" unconnected to one another and unconnected to actual real world contexts where meaning can be understood.

The several nationally oriented projects offer a wealth to contemplate, organizze, plan and incorporate with young people in school and out of school such as: The American Association for The Advancement of Science's Project 2061; International Technology Education Association's Standards for Technological Literacy K-12; National Academy of Engineering's Technically Speaking-Why All Americans Need To Know More About Technology and its Tech Tally-Approaches for Assessing the Technological Literacy of All Americans.

Why are we having such a difficult time in just the areas of STEM education and literacy by the focus only on "S&M" ? The PTC-MIT-EDC Consortium drew 146 to the National Academy of Sciences, September 7, 2006 to address the short fall, the short sightedness of the focus only on the "S&M" and set about proposing 'strategies to address these critical national issues.'

And now, alas, the discussion turns to a "National Curriculum" and "Reauthorization of NCLB "! "A Place Called School" indeed.

John Dewey and Jean Piaget- where are you when we need you?

Thank you JD for the excellent summary of the previous comments regarding "Math Anxiety". Your summary is a portal to the thinking of a math anxious student.

I am an elementary school teacher and have been teaching for over 30 years. I have taught almost all grade levels and almost all subjects. A few years ago I decided to get an endorsement in mathematics teaching becuase I have always loved math and I felt I would be in heaven if only I could teach math all day. Last year my dream came true and I was given a middle grades math position. For the last 2 years I have been very frustrated as I tried to teach students mathematics . Some students were excellent in math yet, many were so far behind that they had huge gaps in their understanding of math and those were the students that exhibited the most "Math Anxiety". By the time students are in 7th or 8th grade the gaps are very large and yet they are expected to master many concepts that will prepare them for high school. I would like to know if anyone has any suggestions as to how I can address the topic of "Math Anxiety" at this level and fill the gaps to prepare students for high school math.

I have tried to use strategies that students would use in the lower grades in hopes of relieving students of their anxieties , but how does one jump from fraction strips to middle school content without creating more gaps?

I have read much research as to the causes of "Math Anxiety" but I would like to know how I can alleviate it in the Middle Grades in my classroom when students have been afflicted with it for many years. How do I achieve this when I am responsible for teaching 190 middle school students the math needed to be successful in HIgh School?

Please do not misconstrue this entry as though it is a "woe is me" comment. I truely need some suggestions. Thank you in advance.

In how many parent conferences have you had a parent say, "I was never any good at math and I guess my child won't be either."? They almost wear this like a badge of honor.

You never hear them say, "I was never any good at reading and I guess my child won't be either."

HMMMMM.

DEANA ENOS and others have articulated that under NCLB teachers are forced to abandon their most successful teaching strategies and focus instead on "drill and kill" or "teaching to the test" or some other deadly system of teaching.

I would really like for someone to unpack this one for me, as I hear it so often. It would seem to me that successful teaching strategies result in learning--which is measureable, quantifiable, testable.

What I suspect is that the "successful teaching strategies" are comfortable, enjoyable and their success has been measured by teacher-made tests, with some other sense about student enjoyment of the material. Particularly at the elementary level, where teachers have not typically been required to study mathematics, the content and practice hearken back to what the teacher learned at that age. I think that teachers who have work long and hard doing these things are flummoxed when test scores don't show that their students are learning the material.

Still lacking much of the critical understanding to develop and implement a different approach (despite some earnest attempts on the part of administrators to provide some just-in-time PD), both administrators and teachers, desperate to prove themselves to be "good," adopt "teach to the test" practices, drilling on the things that they know will be on the test and leaving aside any consideration of the purpose for learning mathematics in the first place.

This is why you see student improving on the multiple choice portions of testing, but continuing to fall down on the short answer, reasoning based, story problem sorts of questions that rely on higher order thinking--that cannot be taught through memorization or drill and kill.

I could be wrong, but since the view is so totally entrenched, I would really like to hear the perspective of some of those in the trenches (no pun intended)--about the path away from "good teaching" to "drill and kill."

Anxiety can be used as an aid to performance. In fact, if we look at anxiety as THE cause of failure, we can miss the value that it provides to increasing attention.

While it is actually the behaviors that may be used to reduce anxiety that serve as the performance enhancers, it may help to welcome the feeling of nervous tension as a kind of friend to our own attentiveness.

It may seem that our goal orientation should be directed to eliminating negative feelings altogether, but it may be better to reduce them to a manageable level in order to improve our understanding of the value of performing optimally.

If we have done our homework and classwork, if we have sought help from professionals and peers, if we have studied for the test and we are still performing below expectation, then the major problem may be in the way we look at how our feelings affect our test performance.

Sometimes, the lack of confidence that has led a student to execute all the recommended remedies can persist in test situations. Therefore, it is important to simply have faith with reasonable expectation.

Another major inhibitor to improving outcomes may be in the expectation that math is an exercise in left to right reading. Math has a greater tendency to change directions in perceptual and conceptual orientation, than reading.

The predominate trend in math is to read from left to right, but the direction of our problem solving efforts can shift from left-to-right to right-to-left, to up-to-down or, in order to check our work, to down-to-up. We have rules to help us with the shifting of directional perspective, but all too often, the value of the rules is lost. The emphasis of mathematical problem solving includes the process. It is not restricted to outcomes.

Math also uses symbols and diagrams to express an emphasis on the quantitative analysis of qualities. Thus, we can shift from a linguistic perspective to a more pictoral orientation quite rapidly.

All this shifting of perspective requires a kind of mental gymnastics. A dyslexic disorientation can result, as we shift from left to right and lower to higher brain thinking.

Despite the potential for disorientation and anxiety, mathematics is an extremely valuable discipline. It has a tremedous potential to improve the quality of life for any level of student comprehension. It also increases our non-violent problem solving capacities.

Do your math! You can help to save the world![Smile!]

>> would like to know if anyone has any
>>suggestions as to how I can address the topic
>>of "Math Anxiety" at this level and fill the
>>gaps to prepare students for high school math.

Roula,
I am an engineer who taught middle and high school math for one year. That's not a long time, but the thought that plagued me as I watched students work throughout that year was "if I thought math was that hard, I'd hate it too". With the exception of a few honors students, they ALWAYS used the computationally intense and error-prone standard algorithms of multiplication and long division to calculate answers. Most problems are easier to solve than that. Professionals in the STEM fields use the properties of operations (associative, commutative, distributive, and the identities) to simplify arithmetic problems and solve algebraic problems. This is not about STEM professionals having access to secrets that middle school students don't have - it's the difference between a FACT and a TOOL. Rather than teaching students the properties as facts, teach them as the "tools of the math trade", the tools used to simplify arithmetic problems and solve algebraic problems. I wish I could give you more detail, but this doesn't seem like the appropriate forum to do that.

>>Another major inhibitor to improving outcomes
>>may be in the expectation that math is an
>>exercise in left to right reading. Math has a
>>greater tendency to change directions in
>>perceptual and conceptual orientation, than
>>reading.

Here here. This is strongly related to the properties as tools approach in my previous post.

If anyone asked me 10 years ago if I would ever teach math related courses, I would have laughed in their face. I hated math. I have since 4th grade...and this in spite of being an A student. In high school, my couselor continued to push for me to take advanced math classes. I resisted...I felt like a failure in math. It made no sense to me. My math anxiety does not affect my tests, but then I haven't had any timed tests in decades. It does affect me when someone is looking at me. I cannot figure if I am being watched. I need to turn away. I can look over another person's shoulder and 'do the math', but if the person is watching me, I freeze.
I remember in 4th grade I came up with a different way to do a math problem (I seem to remember it was subtraction with borrowing). I danced up to the teacher in the excited way of many A students who make a discovery and showed my teacher what I did. I got a very stern teacher look, and a "NO, Johny, you can't do it that way. That is wrong! It will get you in big trouble later." I was crushed. No teacher had ever spoken to me like that before. Well, forty years later, I watched a Constance Kamii video about young children reinventing arithmetic and saw a young child doing math that same way. That was the beginning of my rebirth in math. It took me forty years to realize that the way that math made sense to me was not wrong, but was simply different from the algorithm.
I did my doctoral dissertation in part on math anxiety. I am making friends with math, and in doing so, am finding it is challenging, exciting, and engaging. Why did I have to be in my 50's to get to this place?
In defense of NCLB, it is not the cause of timed tests. Timed tests have been around a lot longer than the law. However, I do think that teachers are reluctant to give up the timed tests a lot more now because of NCLB. Math is taught certain ways because so many elementary teachers themselves are math anxious. Where they(I)was very confident in teaching reading or language arts in various ways, in math we tend to follow that textbook. The reasoning is, if we tell the students, then they will 'know' it! In reality, we need to teach it so much differently...as math teacher Patrick Shanahan said, "students actually have to do the mathematics." That does not mean naked problems in a textbook. Textbooks teach rules and rote memorization. Without the foundation of understanding, when our children get to the upper grades, math will come crashing down in their faces.

Thank you so much for this commentary. I'm entering the discussion a little late but I have forwarded all of your comments to my principals and will use them in the class I teach to Elementary Teacher candidates at the college level. Many of them have a fairly high level of math anxiety due to their math experiences as students and I am trying my best to break that pattern so that it is not carried on to the students they will teach in the future.

Sandra, I too am trying to find a way to 'break the pattern' of math anxiety in my preservice teachers, but I am finding this very hard! It is hard to undue in a two credit methods course what twelve years of mathematics teaching has created.

My husband and I sat in on some first grade classes this morning that our daughters might be in next year. We got to witness a timed "math facts" test as part of a pilot program they're trying out. If they stick with this program, we will register our "conscientious objector" status.

I grew up hating math. I now teach math from 6-12 and part-time at the community college. Why did I grow up with a pure hatred of math class? It was the teachers, not personally, but professionally. In elementary grades, I asked questions. Why are numbers odd or even? Is multiplication a shorter way to add? Where did this formula come from? How does it really work? The answers I got were always either because I said so or it's what the book says. These were the answers that were designed to placate my existence and stunt my intellectual growth and curiosity. Far too often, math is not understood by teachers who do not truly understand it. Elementary teachers are wonderful and they do wonderful things with our children, so please, do not take offense to this. Math is not about numbers, but they are the tools with which concepts are developed. Math should be taught as a concept down, not from mechanics up. This would be like taking bolts and steel to make a car without the concept first being developed. Rote memorization only works short term as the research from educators such as the Wong's and Marzano have repeatedly pointed out over the last twenty years. Teach conceptually and let the kids develop their own truths and they have it forever with a deep and rich understanding.

Hello. I thought some of you might like to know about my new book, "Crossing the Equal Sign", just published by Plain View Press in Texas. It consists of poetry about the experience of mathematics, and I've been told has been helpful in math anxiety situations.

I have been a mathematician, mathprof, and most of all math-lover, from the gitgo. Not only was I "good at math" as a child and adolescent, but math touched me in various emotional ways -- much as science fiction touches many people, in that it connects with the mysteries and human anguishes that we all have to live with and under. In this book, math serves as metaphor for ALL striving, yearning, joy, and passion (and vice versa).

Many of the poems in my new book have appeared in both math and literary journals, and been appreciated by mathematicians and non-mathematicians alike. Many readers have known me as the author of books on chronic illness of a spouse, care giving, and pregnancy loss, and while some of these poems touch on this "life stuff", the subject here is math. Many of the poems describe the particular experience of math research (which is in many ways like the experience of anybody who works hard at something that is important to her); other poems connect math with adolescent memories, nature photography, the ocean, guns and violence, broken ankles, kids, cats, and more.

This book (my 17th) is important to me, not only because it represents one of my several life's and heart's odysseys, but also because (1) it "bridges the gap" between science and art, logic and emotion, "left and right brain", (2) it would be (and has been) helpfrul to people with "math anxiety", in demonstrating how possible it is to love and relate meaningfully to math, even if it seems, to some, a "cold hard subject" (I taught a Math Anxiety Workshop for twenty years.) and (3) (as fas as I know) it's the ONLY full-length collection of serious "math poetry". (Jet Foncannon, "fellow math-poet", says in a blurb on the back cover of the book, "Marion is one of the few poets who can successfully explore the join between the literary and mathematical sensibilities, and no one does it as well as she.")

I've read the poems at math conferences and universities, and I hope that word of the book spreads not only to the rest of the math community but also to high schools and other situations where people need to feel more comfortable and positive about living in a world that includes math and absolute truth.

The book is available through my published ([email protected]) or from me (2203 Spruce St., Phila., PA 19103) for $17.95 including postage and handling.

You can also check out my website www.marioncohen.com for plenty of samples of my writing, in particular "math poems".

This discussion is truly interesting to read and ponder. I found myself reflecting upon my own personal elementary days (some 40 yrs ago)and realized my early math years were using sets and groups of objects to be added and subtracted. Number Sense (having a reasonable idea for a solution because it makes sense) was not taught, it was slowly being developed within the students through constant daily mathematical practice, thought, and experience. Kudos to the memories of those teachers! Middle school and high school math topics, however, were scary! The teachers were old and very rigid. My report cards read- B, C, D, and F with them! "My way or the highway!" mentality without any practical use examples, nor assistance. I can truly empathize with those people with math anxieties. With a change in my career path about 1992, I found myself preparing to teach elementary school. It was only during the methods course (~1995)that I learned the how's and why's of algebra. Today, as a grade two teacher in CT, I weave number sense experiences into the lessons and class discussions focus on "Why is that?". The students share their metacognition about using and solving the problems. For me, if students can share why they are using the specific algorithm, then, I'd say they have a head start on avoiding any math anxiety.

My son is in a school that has a big assembly every month to reward the kids who have passed their math wizzards ( timed math test)My son has a 97 average in math and cannot pass even the first test. Every month he has to sit through that assembly and watch his friends receive an award, sometimes a second award. I am so glad to have come across this forum so that I can show it to the principal. I have been triing since the beginning of the year to explain to her how much emotional stress this puts on my son. Glad to hear that he is not alone.

Are there studies/surveys that document the nature and extent of math anxiety among school children? By grade? By type of math? By the student's academic level? Over the past 20 years? By the way that math it taught?

I am the mother of a public school first grader; my son shows talent in math, however I fear the school system is crushing that talent with its emphasis on timed testing. My son's school uses the same system as Julie's. When a student passes the timed math facts test his or her name is announced, a sticker is charted and he or she is allowed to move on to the next level of addition/subtraction. The first timed test was today and my son did not complete the test in the 90 seconds allotted. Though he has been adding, subtracting, multiplying and doing other more advanced concept/reasoning math since kindergarten, he was not "fast" enough. Actually, I suspect memorization is not the issue but perfectionism and writing speed. The teacher told the students not to spend time worrying about how they wrote the numbers. Unfortunately, my son writes slowly and deliberately. He is good at memorizing but he is also a thinker and I fear the emphasis on timed math facts will take away the natural logic/reasoning powers he possesses by failing to help him foster those skills. Unfortunately, I know from early childhood that these types of school experiences hit home hard and stay with people for life. As a kindergartener, the first question I ever had marked with a "X" was a math problem. From then on, I believed I could not do math. I became an English major and believed in my "arts" strengths. It was very telling, but too late, when I excelled in Algebra, and when my SAT score in math was considerably higher than my score in English. My attitude about math, fed by traditional schooling, led me to miss out on so much of the magic and excitement of math. Honestly, I'm just now learning it through my son and the experience of working with students at the school; it is frustrating to watch students, who use such a wide variety of skills to get to the answer, pigeon-holed by the system into one way of learning. We have considered homeschooling as a way of avoiding a lot of this type of rote, traditional "old fashioned" learning. It's unfortunate that schools cannot offer learning based on the variety of styles students possess. It is also frustrating to feel "pushy" as you advocate for your child, and others. I stepped in early in the year and our son has been receiving enrichment sheets, which are wonderful. However, I am sad to say it may take him a long time to pass even a basic timed test and that just doesn't make sense based on his skill and knowledge of math facts. And, his personality is such that the timed test means so much that it makes him more anxious and unable to excel. Very frustrating.

The Earth is dying because of math and science.

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