Steve Chinn is the author of The Fear of Maths: How to Overcome It. With over thirty years’ experience of work and research in special and mainstream education, he specialises in maths learning difficulties and dyscalculia. In 1986 he founded and developed a specialist secondary school for dyslexic boys, which went on to win several major national awards.
His experience has led him to realise that anxiety is a major contributor to the mental block that many people develop when it comes to doing maths, and his blog post below explores the five biggest causes of maths anxiety, with suggestions as to how to overcome them.
What’s Holding You Back: Maths and Anxiety
By Steve Chinn
What is it about maths that creates so much anxiety in so many people? We know that there is maths anxiety, but why not art anxiety or history anxiety?
These are the five most common causes that I have come across for maths anxiety and a few suggestions on how to combat the problem:
1. Fear of negative evaluation
One of the issues with maths is that the answers to questions are right or wrong and few of us like being told that we are wrong. This is exacerbated when we are wrong in front of other people. Doing maths in public, say working out the tip in a restaurant in front of friends is going to create anxiety.
Building skills for estimating can help. In many situations ‘close enough’ is just as good as ‘spot on’.
2. Doing maths quickly
It is part of the culture of maths that questions should be answered quickly. It’s hard to know when this demand began, but 6 x7 is 42 whether you take 2 seconds to answer or 10 seconds. Having to do things that you find difficult quickly creates anxiety. Slow down and give yourself time to think. This will give you a chance to be certain of your answer, and will make you less likely to make small mistakes that creep in when you are in a rush.
3. Knowing the multiplication facts (times tables)
I don’t know why, but I do know that the reality is that some people find rote learning these facts a BIG problem. It is a part of maths that hasn’t changed over time so parents feel able to help their children, so they buy CDs of multiplication facts songs to play on the school run…. anxiety before the child even gets to school.
Start with the easiest times tables (x1, x2, x5 and x10) to build confidence, and then use what you have learnt here to move on to the more challenging ones.
4. Mental arithmetic
To be successful at mental arithmetic you have to have a good short-term memory, or you won’t remember the question, which is quite a handicap. You also need a good working memory, the memory you use to do things ‘in your head’. Not everyone has good short-term and working memories. This is the way it is. Being able to jot down notes and memory-joggers can be a help and should not generate guilty feelings.
5. Fractions, division and algebra
These three topics really create anxiety in children and adults. Most people master addition. They find subtraction a bit harder, multiplication a bit harder still and division pretty close to impossible. That, in turn, makes algebra very difficult and thus very anxiety-generating. To be good at algebra you have to understand addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. Not just remember the procedures, but really understand. It can be made much easier than you might think. Maths is logical and most things are inter-linked. That inter-linking can be good if you can understand each link, but it becomes a real problem if even one link is missing. Maths is a great subject, but learners need to have the concepts explained in ways that they can understand and that means something far more educational than just feeding facts into memory.