Math Anxiety_1

By: Nik Nur Sajidah Bt Nik Osthman    D20081033179

What is mathematics anxiety?

Math anxiety among college students has risen in the last few years.  Many students avoid mathematics and decide on their program of study based on the math courses needed to complete the degree requirement.  Math anxiety is not an intellectual problem but an emotional problem, which can be overcome. Mathematics anxiety has been defined as feelings of tension and anxiety that interfere with the manipulation of numbers and the solving of mathematical problems in a wide variety of ordinary life and academic situations. It can cause one to forget and lose one’s self-confidence (Tobias, 1978). People who suffer from math anxiety feel that they are not capable of doing any course or activity requiring mathematics. Mathematics anxiety is an emotional rather than intellectual problem. It makes a large number of students’ minds go blank momentarily even when a simple mathematical calculation is called for.

Sweating palms, queasy stomach, panic, fear, clenched fists, cold sweat, helplessness, tension, distress, dry mouth, shame and an inability to cope and so on : these are just a few of the signs of mathematical anxiety (Burton, 1979). Tobias and Weissbrod (1980) defined math anxiety as the panic, helplessness, paralysis, mental disorganization that arise among  some people when they required to solve a mathematical problem.

As conclusion, math anxiety is defined as feeling of anxiety that one cannot perform efficiently in situations that involve the use of mathematics. Although it is mostly associated with academics, it can apply to other aspects of life. Math anxiety is an emotional problem, and it is characterized by intense nervousness before or during math tests. This interferes with a person’s ability to optimally do math problems, thus morphing into an intellectual problem.

Why does it happen?

Evidence suggest that mathematics anxiety results more from the way the subject is presented than from subject itself (Greenwood 1980). In most cases, math anxiety is the result of a previous embarrassing experience or a moment of failure involving mathematics. Significant factors associated to mathematics anxiety such as teacher student relationship, teacher’s style of teaching, examination pressure and parental and peer group influences. Many interrelated factors contributed to the formation of mathematics anxiety and especially among teacher trainees is not uncommon as previous studies have already indicated (Haylock, 1995). Lazarus (1974) argued that mathematics anxiety results from poor instruction and poorly designed mathematics curricula. It is related to the abstract nature of mathematics (Burton, 1976; Brush, 1981; Fergusom, 1986). Poor spatial skills (Tobias, 1976) make mathematical comprehension difficult for many people.

Bush (1991) commented that mathematics anxiety arises from a climate in which negative attitudes and anxiety are transmitted from adults to children. Mc Millan (1976) found that teachers’ attitude and enthusiasm toward a subject had greater impact on student attitudes than did instructional variables. More specifically, teachers with mathematics anxiety transmit their anxiety to their students (Kelly and Tomhave, 1985; Bulman and Young, 1982 and Lazarus, 1974). Furthermore, Lazarus (1974) and Wilhelm and Brooks (1980) added that negative parental attitudes may be transmitted to their children and that parents often reinforce their children’s mathematics anxiety. Mathematics anxiety obviously develops in some persons during the early years of schooling (Busha, 1991). From research that was conducted (Puteh, 1998), it was found that the causes of mathematics anxiety related to teacher personality and their style of teaching, public examinations and their effect, affective domain, feelings, worries, difficulties, parental expectations, peer group influences and relevance – the usage of mathematics in everyday life.

Who has it?

Math anxiety is a phenomenon that is often considered when examining students’ problems in mathematics. A study by Betz (1978) suggests that mathematics anxiety is a problem for many college students, including even those in advanced mathematics.

In this book, it reveals the anxiety that primary teacher trainees in Malaysia felt regarding mathematics. Another study done by English (1989) on in-service teachers reveals that teachers exhibiting higher mathematics anxiety levels were more likely to be female, more likely to have a lower attitude toward mathematics, less likely to have performed well in mathematics course, more likely to have completed fewer grades  and less likely to have felt competent in teaching mathematics. Primary school teachers are often found to suffer most acutely from mathematics anxiety (Briggs, 1993; Briggs and Crook, 1991).


When does it occur?

Students confronted with a difficult mathematical task on which they are to be assessed may feel nervous and show signs such as tremor in the limbs and sweating of hands. A student may, for a variety of reasons, develop an emotional and intellectual block towards the learning of mathematics in the course of his school years. Lazarus (1974) describe that a student who has developed an emotional and intellectual block against mathematics finds that making progress in mathematics and closely related fields is very difficult. If student became over-anxious when he or she did not fully understand some part of the mathematics lesson, they would make greater effort to comprehend. Such a student actively turns away from mathematics and rapidly develops a fatalistic attitude about mathematics, fully expecting to do badly.

There are many reasons why enhancing the awareness of mathematics anxiety among teachers and especially teacher trainees. First, the teacher’s attitudes and their enthusiasm toward a subject have a great impact on students’ attitudes (Ernest, 1991). Hence a teacher who is in love with a subject tends to infect students with a similar enthusiasm, whereas a teacher who hates and fears mathematics will influence students negatively. Passing on negative attitudes towards this important field of knowledge is potentially harmful. Factors that had contribute to the feelings of anxiety towards mathematics among teacher trainee in Malaysia and then affect their current response to mathematics and their further endeavour as teacher.

What/who create it?

Mathematics anxiety can be related to attitudes of parents, teachers or other people in the learning environment. It also happened because of some specific incident in a student’s math history which was frightening or embarrassing. Students’ existing attitudes toward mathematics came mainly from:

  • The experience of learning mathematics;
  • The teachers’ personality and style of teaching;
  • The system and examination pressure;
  • Parental and peer group pressure.

How do you reduce it?

Mathematics anxiety should be reducing among teacher/teacher trainees first. As teacher we need to change our individual beliefs and the teaching and learning of mathematics because beliefs are a major affective component in individuals’ systems of learning. In particular, Underhill (1988) discussed the beliefs concerning motivation and self, which are inseparable in the teaching and learning area.

            Lack of practice seems to be the main factor contributing to the trainees’ poor performance in mathematics. This lack of practice was further associated with the next section which is laziness. Laziness was indicated by the trainees to be the other main reason for their performance. So, avoid being lazy and done lots of practice. Solving a mathematics problem or learning from a teacher requires concentration, clear thinking and paying close attention to what is written or said. Students enjoy the change from lecture and books and they are more inclined to explore with manipulative and show greater interest in class work.

We as teacher should help our students’ by changes their perceptions of mathematics and mathematics learning in problem solving strategies. Hence, if students perceive mathematics as a set of prescribed procedures, they will be perplexed and confused by tasks for which set methods will not suffice (Underhill, p.63, 1998). Too much traditional model of teaching should be avoided as knowledge transmission does very little to take advantage of learners’ motivations in this sense; further, there is little perceived connection  between mathematics as it is taught and a learner’s sense of viability.

Teachers who are teaching in the primary schools have to specialize in any subject matter. Not only expected to teach all subjects including mathematics as there is a general feeling that teaching in the primary is easy task. Furthermore, teachers should not contribute to negative feelings among her/his students because all of the students in this research agreed that their teachers seem to be a vital factor in determining their experiences in the learning mathematics. Positively or negatively, it is undeniable that they all agreed that their teachers played their part in creating the feelings that they have towards mathematics.

Calling upon student to give their answer on public/blackboard should be avoided because students feel nervous and anxious if we as teacher call them to perform a mathematical task. Students feel that their failure to perform the mathematical task in public reflected on them personally.

As conclusion, learning strategies including seeking assistance from tutor or instructors, peer support groups, completing the assigned homework, having extra studying time for mathematics, looking for additional learning resources, asking questions in class, using relaxation techniques and having positive self beliefs helped in reducing mathematics anxiety.

How do you eliminate?

The situation is highly complex, but to put it in simple terms, a change of attitude towards mathematics in primary teacher trainees is what is basically is needed. This means a change in the predisposition to various perceptions, feelings or behaviors towards the subject. If this is to happen, the cycle that already exists in students and especially teachers trainees, must be broken. An intervention that aims specially at helping trainees to identify and then modify and reduce their mathematics anxiety must be introduced in the process of training these teacher trainees in training colleges. The mere fact of admitting to its existence is already the road to rectifying it (Mitchell and Collins, 1991)



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