Dealing with Math Anxiety
“I hate math!” We hear that too often. (We work at a software studio that makes educational games, so we pay close attention to students’ difficulties.) Sometimes it starts around the time kids learn fractions, sometimes sooner, and sometimes later. Unfortunately, if they don’t find success soon, a negative cycle called math anxiety can set in and can potentially last throughout their lives. They might someday become adults who say, “I was never any good at math.” We also hear that too often. Luckily, it doesn’t have to be that way.
The Math Anxiety Cycle
What happens is that a student, at some point, experiences difficulties with an important topic. This is a normal part of the learning process for everyone. However, sometimes the student may experience a certain counterproductive kind of frustration. The next time the topic comes up, the frustrated student thinks about their prior difficulties instead of focusing on the subject at hand. This distraction makes it hard to perform well on the material, which likely results in another low performance, which in turn reinforces the student’s anxiety about the topic, which makes it even harder for them to focus, forming a negative cycle.
More Advanced Skills Rely On More Basic Skills
If you can add, subtract, multiply and divide, then you can also do factoring, fractions, algebra, geometry and higher math. Each skill builds a foundation for the next. If you’re good at one, you are set up to succeed in the following subject. Unfortunately, the math anxiety cycle can follow students from one subject to the next the same way.
Overcoming fear of math is easier than one might expect, and can be achieved by people of all ages. The trick is to break the cycle.
Breaking the Cycle
There are three basic strategies to break the cycle of math anxiety, and they reinforce each other.
The first is to gain confidence through mastery. The second is to go back a step to build a stronger foundation. The third is to condition the mind to adopt a calm, focused state when working on math.
Math Anxiety Strategy #1: Gain Confidence Through Mastery
Mastery means being good at something. When you develop mastery, you automatically build confidence in your strong ability and skill. For many skills, you accomplish that mastery through practice. When anxiety might be in play, it takes a lot of practice: enough that the desired skills become automatic. For example, someone with mastery of factoring doesn’t think, “What are the prime factors of 56”? They just look at the number 56 and know, “It’s 7 x 8. And, 8 is 2 x 2 x 2.”
Practicing basic skills takes drills, and so much drilling can be really tiresome, so it’s valuable to make the practice fun. This is where educational games are at their strongest. Playing engrossing games works well and people who play a lot develop strong automatic skills without getting bored or frustrated.
Math Anxiety Strategy #2: Go Back to Basics
Here’s another important point: when dealing with math anxiety, it can sometimes be hard to attempt direct mastery of a skill where an intense anxiety has developed. This is because the anxiety gets triggered every time the student starts work on the topic. To break this Catch-22, one can instead first focus on some prerequisite skills (the skills that the more difficult one relies on). The student first masters the prerequisite skills, often at a much higher level than actually required. Then, the student can more easily relax, develop confidence, and break the cycle.
Math Anxiety Strategy #3: Condition a Calm Focused State of Mind
Some people experience a form of panic when under pressure, like when taking tests, and they blank out, forgetting everything they know. The obvious, but difficult solution, is to put the mind into a calm focused state. We solve this with a method called conditioning. That means that by intentionally training the mind to become calm when doing similar work in a controlled environment, it will later stay calm in more stressful environments.
Listening to pleasant music while doing drills or playing games in a low pressure environment can help create a calm, focused state of mind. By repeatedly experiencing the music and the numbers together, the calm feeling carries over and connects to working with numbers. After a while, the music isn’t necessary. A calm state of mind can replace fear, panic and math anxiety.
Bubbly Primes Helps Conquer Math Anxiety
We have created a math game, Bubbly Primes, that takes advantage of all three tactics. Playing the game is engrossing and lots of fun, particularly when kids play it with their friends, classmates and family, as well as playing solo. The game encourages lots of drilling, and players gain strong skills, far in excess of the requirements of normal classwork. Many students first develop math anxiety when learning fractions. So, Bubbly Primes focuses on factoring, an important, but sometimes neglected basic skill that’s important for working with fractions and other more advanced topics. The game’s classical music provides a calm feel, as does the hand-drawn, aquatic artwork. It allows one’s mind to focus even as the game advances and recreates the tension experienced during tests and when under pressure. Together, these three tactics help players build skill and confidence – the keys to conquering math anxiety.