Overcoming Math Anxiety

This presentation describes how math anxiety affects learners and specific techniques to help ease and overcome these effects.

Cynthia Bell
Author(s) Organizational Affiliation
Literacy Assistance Center
Publication Year
Resource Type

Mathematics anxiety affects almost half of the learners in adult education classrooms. Fear interferes with the part of the brain needed for reasoning and problem-solving. Math anxiety can also affect teachers in ways that negatively affect students. In this presentation, participants learn how math anxiety affects learners and specific stratgegies to help ease and overcome these effects.

Strategy 1: Make students aware of the physiological effects of math anxiety. Research shows that when someone is experiencing math anxiety there is a physiological effect similar to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Strategy 2: Change the learner’s mindset about their potential and teach math in a way that is open and free enough for them to learn and grow. Studies show that learners learn best when they are active learners, which can be encouraged with a growth mindset. 

Strategy 3: Promote ideas of mathematical freedom because students' feelings of loss of control can shut brain function. Refrain from tying self-esteem to success in math.

Strategy 4: Encourage student authorship of processes and ideas. Give students multiple solution tasks, which opens up authorship and promotes ideas. That shifts the focus from a correct answer to what I think.

Strategy 5: Create a positive learning environment by establishing positive norms in the classroom through things like validating mistakes.

Stragtegy 6: Develop a memory bank of positive math experiences. Students may use pictures or write down experiences from class and deposit them into their bank. Students can look back at their positive experience to combat negative self-talk.

Strategies that can help teachers overcome their math anxiety include:

  1. Develop a growth mindset
  2. Feel mathematical freedom
  3. Share a sense of discover with their students. It’s ok if you don’t know all the answers.

Cynthia Bell's presentation begins at the 08:45 mark in the recording.

What the experts say

This webinar introduces ideas for addressing math anxiety and the importance of developing a growth mindset for learning. Math anxiety is a topic that must be addressed and understood by practitioners and learners alike in order to promote a growth mindset and deeper learning. The resources identified in the webinar will help practitioners become more informed on the topic. 

Understanding math anxiety can also address a practitioner's need to change their teaching practice to allow for a safe learning environment, and explore and discuss mathematics. This in turn supports some of the Mathematical Practices especially Math Practice 1: perseverance in problem solving

Acknowledging that many adult educators are, themselves, anxious about doing and teaching mathematics is important for the field. However, the speaker’s example of trying to quickly remember a fact such as 5 times 7 during a presentation and an accompanying moment of panic is different in kind from the debilitating power that math anxiety can wield.

The most useful feature of the resource is the suggested strategies to use with learners, but actual examples of the strategies would have been helpful. The speaker mentions that a presentation of this material would have benefitted from interactive mathematical activities, which is true.

Resource Notice

This site includes links to information created by other public and private organizations. These links are provided for the user’s convenience. The U.S. Department of Education does not control or guarantee the accuracy, relevance, timeliness, or completeness of this non-ED information. The inclusion of these links is not intended to reflect their importance, nor is it intended to endorse views expressed, or products or services offered, on these non-ED sites.

Please note that privacy policies on non-ED sites may differ from ED’s privacy policy. When you visit lincs.ed.gov, no personal information is collected unless you choose to provide that information to us. We do not give, share, sell, or transfer any personal information to a third party. We recommend that you read the privacy policy of non-ED websites that you visit. We invite you to read our privacy policy.