As an Algebra 1 teacher at my high school I see a wide variety of anxieties regarding my content area. This anxiety has a detrimental effect on student performance, particularly as students need to use their working memory for increasingly complex math situations (Foley et al. 2017). I really wanted to know where this math anxiety was coming from, and what the best ways to combat it in my classroom might be.
The origins of math anxiety are complex, particularly as it appears to be a learned trait. This means that all the avenues of learning are also methods by which students can pick up math anxiety. Students can pick it up from teachers or parents, depending on which adults they spend time with in the right environment for learning math anxiety through social interactions. Students may also pick up math anxiety by the level of difficulty they experience when trying to complete math assignments independently. If a student finds it difficult, and therefore avoids working on math, they may find themselves in a habit loop that reinforces their anxiety with a topic they find difficult. However, the piece that I found most interesting, and the part that I can tackle, is how math anxiety is linked to identity. Some students, as part of their self identity, do not see themselves as good math students. This can occur for a variety of reasons that include intersectionality from a student’s cultural, socio-economic, and gender identities, among others. A student may have conflict between their self-concept and their ability to perform in school, as well as math class. It is the idea that a student is ‘not a math person’ that I would tackle as a math teacher.
The origins of math anxiety are complex.
In trying to encourage students to believe that they can all be ‘math people’ I would look to use strategies that let students know that I value them and want to see them succeed. There is a lot of overlap here between culturally sustaining pedagogy and the identity validation that I would use. You could also consider the growth mindset as being part of this toolbox, but one of the most important keys is to make sure the student is valued for who they are and what they bring to the table. Algebra can be learned by anyone with time and effort, and students bring their own skillset to the table when they enter my classroom. I should endeavor to see what each student does well, and use that as a bridge to understanding. This is not very distant from the ‘start from where they are’ pedagogy that most teacher education programs suggest. It also strives to ensure that teachers understand that their students should be viewed not as though they are working with a deficit, but rather as though they have untapped potential. This is where I will focus my energies to combat math anxiety.
Foley, A. E., Herts, J. B., Borgonovi, F., Guerriero, S., Levine, S. C., & Beilock, S. L. (2017). The Math Anxiety-Performance Link: A Global Phenomenon. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 26(1), 52–58. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721416672463
Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). Toward a theory of culturally relevant pedagogy. American Education Research Journal, 32, 465-491.
Winnik, Mariana. (2020) Black and Brown Students’ Mathematics Anxiety in Elementary School: The Use of Restorative Justice Circles and Critical Concepts of Care, Hope, and Love. https://academicworks.cuny.edu/gc_etds/3556/