Why Some Students Feel Like They Can’t Excel In Math

Instructional Trends

Why Some Students Feel Like They Can’t Excel In Math

By Daniel Mollenkamp     Jan 24, 2024

Why Some Students Feel Like They Can’t Excel In Math

Sabrina Colon, a first-year student at University of California, Merced, remembers when math first became a problem.

She says she’s not a math person, but she was able to pass her high school math classes without too much trouble, earning Cs. But in college, where she’s a business major, calculus is proving insurmountable.

It’s given her severe anxiety.

She doesn’t want to go to class at all. She pretends to be sick, or finds another excuse. It feels pointless. The teachers just expect her to understand the math right away, she says. Seeing other students who seem to get by well enough makes her feel isolated.

There was another classmate who was struggling as much as her, but he dropped the class.

She hoped the feeling would melt away. But it’s gotten worse. When thinking about math, her chest tightens. Sometimes, it keeps her from sleeping.

Earlier this year, she was supposed to take an exam. But when she arrived at the class it was too much. “Like, my body would not allow me to open the door and step inside, so I just left,” she says. She never took the exam.

The fear or nervousness that occurs when performing or learning math is, by some accounts, the most common form of education-related anxiety. Lately, it’s even been used to explain part of the differences in math scores between countries on the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, which showed falling math scores for the U.S. These feelings can affect how far students are willing to pursue math. When America is struggling to create more critical thinkers, this may hold some students back. So what does that mean for students with this anxiety?

Under Pressure

There are a number of theories about how math anxiety relates to performance, according to Colleen Ganley, an associate professor of developmental psychology at Florida State University. The most widely accepted model is called “reciprocal theory,” and it holds that students can find themselves in a loop where debilitating anxiety and poor math performance both work together to hinder their learning, Ganley says. On the one hand, worrying about math can lead students to avoid math altogether, preventing them from improving. Meanwhile, poor performance in math — because it’s a salient negative experience — causes anxiety, Ganley says. There’s slightly more evidence that poor achievement more often fuels math anxiety than the other way around, though there’s evidence going both ways, she adds.

The nervousness can mean, for students like Colon, that their mind is so busy worrying about whether they can perform the math that their brain’s working memory is eaten up, interfering with their ability to actually do the math, says Susan Levine, a professor in the department of psychology at the University of Chicago.

The phenomenon is more common in students who aren’t particularly good at math, Levine says. But it can be more devastating for students who have a lot of math potential, taking a bigger bite out of their math scores. That’s because those students tend to solve math problems using strategies that require more working memory, she adds. When they are nervous, these students revert to less advanced strategies. For example, she adds, they’ve found that math-anxious students are more likely to resort to finger counting when solving arithmetic problems.

There’s also evidence that women feel this anxiety more often than men, Levine says.

Searching for Answers

With anxiety, solutions can be tough to generalize.

In the classroom, researchers don’t know much about what works for anxiety, Ganley says. That's why she focuses much of her own work on the students themselves. What happens in the classroom will matter for math anxiety, but how much those things matter will depend on the specific student.

Practices that have been shown to inflame math anxiety for students include poor teacher support, poor student-teacher relationships, an overly competitive environment and unsupportive classroom climates, according to Ganley. Part of this has to do with students being nervous to make mistakes in math, she says.

Having students reframe their feelings as excitement rather than anxiety or having them journal about their anxiety before taking a test may help, some researchers suggest. But there’s complicating evidence, with one study showing that this approach may even be harmful in 10- to 12-year-old students.

Some argue that instructional methods like timed tests aggravate anxiety. But Ganley suggests that the research doesn’t support any blanket statements. While the evidence hasn't settled whether timed tests help or hurt, Ganley says she suspects that thoughtful uses of timed tests can be useful. For example, in her own instruction, Ganley has had students complete timed tests and then grade themselves, without showing it to anyone else. Over time, Ganley then entered students' data and created plots to show students their progress in math. That can be useful when students have setbacks, she says. Thoughtless uses, on the other hand, could worsen anxiety, especially if it encourages publicly comparing students, she says.

But there are things that instructors can do, some researchers say.

Instructional practices really matter, says Yasemin Copur-Gencturk, an associate professor of teacher education at the University of Southern California. For many people, being skilled at math means being able to get to a correct answer quickly. But math proficiency goes beyond a hyper focus on answers: It requires students to develop complex thinking, she says. That means students should be given more chances to develop reasoning and problem-solving skills, she says. So she encourages other teachers to not only focus on whether a student’s solution is correct, but also to help students to make sense of the process and the thinking involved in arriving at the answer.

In a lot of classrooms, teachers will present a problem and then solve it right away. Instead, she argues, when teachers give their students a chance to tackle these problems first, it lets students make sense of the mathematics they are learning. And it also helps teachers to develop key knowledge and skills they need for teaching mathematics. So teachers should give students a few minutes to try to figure the problem out, and observe and listen to them, she says. This can reveal common struggles.

Levine, of Chicago, agrees. She argues for more collaboration in math classes and more discussion of different ways to solve math problems. There's a lot of good thinking that can happen when you get the wrong answer, she says. Even if a student makes a silly mistake, maybe the approach they took is really creative.

Copur-Gencturk argues that teacher preparation programs don’t devote enough time to ensure that future teachers are confident and knowledgeable enough, in the math and pedagogy, to cultivate an understanding and enjoyment of math in students.

Ideally, teachers would possess a deep familiarity with math and also with how to teach it. But alternative credentials are becoming more common. Teachers who enter the profession through alternative routes lack the content-specific expertise needed for teaching, Copur-Gencturk says.

“So we are just letting them experiment on students. I mean, to me, this is not fair to students,” she says.

Colon, from Merced, attributes her own anxiety to the desire to avoid math — which she now finds painfully confusing — and a constant need to compare herself to other students.

When I asked her if she would take any more math classes once her major’s requirements were met, she gave a nervous laugh. “No,” she said.

She’s seeing tutors, but they haven’t been useful. “I just think I'm the problem, honestly, when it comes to math,” Colon says.

But she’s still hopeful that she can learn the material. She’s also found that meditation helps her manage the anxiety.

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