As a child, you may have been terrified of numbers, as are millions of students in the country. One look at a notebook full of numbers and Xs and Ys can create unparalleled anxiety in the minds of children. ‘Maths anxiety’ is real.
Maths anxiety has been defined by Tobias and Weissbrod (1980) as “the panic, helplessness, paralysis, and mental disorganisation that arises among some people when they are required to solve a mathematical problem”. Research using brain scanners (fMRI) have shown that maths anxiety has measurable effects on parts of the brain used to understand maths.
It is important to note, as reported by Finlayson (2014), that maths anxiety is usually linked with the kind of teaching styles and methods that students experience in a classroom, which often focus on memorisation and rote recitation.
To understand how to deal with students with maths anxiety, Platocast spoke to Tapashi Dey, a mathematics tutor from Kolkata, who has been in this field for about 15 years now.
“I can tell you from experience that out of 40 students, not even ten enjoy the subject,” Tapashi says. “Students are afraid and anxious and lack interest in the subject mostly because of how it is taught.”
In her early years in school, Tapashi says, she hardly understood the subject. The numbers grew horns on the papers and the subject often felt like a burden.
“However, when I was in class 9, a teacher named Miss Bhanja came along and I realised how proper teaching methods can help students grow interest in a subject. I soon began to enjoy maths, and instead of treating it as a subject I had to learn in order to pass an exam, I began treating it as a puzzle,” Tapashi says.
“As a child, I loved solving puzzles and riddles. I would get hold of magazines that had riddles given in the corner of the papers, and would sit until I could successfully solve them. It was interesting and great fun. I realised mathematics was no different. I went on to pursue my higher studies in maths,” she adds.
Several students have had negative maths experiences such as embarrassment or humiliation from failure. Teachers are often insensitive or uncaring, there are negative attitudes about maths from peers or family. There is the problem of traditional rote learning rather than understanding the processes.
“I have seen how afraid students are of mathematics. As a teacher, I believe it is important to make children realise that maths isn’t a subject to be memorised so as to pass in examinations, but is something that needs to be understood and practiced,” Tapashi says. “The moment you treat maths as a riddle instead of scary numbers and alphabets in a textbook, it becomes easier to overcome the fear.”
The severity of Mathematics Anxiety can range from a feeling of mild tension to experiencing a strong fear of maths. Maths anxiety can result in varying degrees of helplessness, panic and mental disorganisation.
“When I teach my students, I make sure the process is not restricted to the school textbooks. I draw on the board, interact with them, share real life experiences and examples. I try to make them realise that every mathematical problem is a story, a mystery or puzzle that needs to be put together,” says Tapashi.
“I have seen how schools pressurize students to solve a particular number of sums in a day, they are overburdened with homework and the need to pass their examinations will good scores. In the process, they forget to actually ‘learn’ or enjoy what they do. For them, it is a necessary task and not a ‘dare’ to be confronted and won,” she adds.
Research shows that the levels of anxiety in the classroom can lead to students avoiding work and learning things only at a surface level. The uncertainty of what kind of a mathematical problem is coming their way, and the tension involved in not knowing what the outcome of their effort is going to be, cause immense panic among children.
“It is very important for parents not to put pressure on their children to score well. It is a common thing for parents to tell their children that maths isn’t like history or English, and that they can easily get a 100/100 in their exams. With such pressure on their minds, how will they motivate themselves to learn? The only thing on their mind is that it’s a very difficult subject and all that matters in the end is the score. But no, what really matters is how you brave yourself to face the battle and keep fighting until you win,” says Tapashi.
“As a little girl, and even as a teacher now, I don’t give up until I solve a problem. I treat a mathematical problem as a real life experience, and make myself believe that I do not have a way forward if I don’t solve it. And remember, every problem has a solution. All you need is some patience and perseverance,” she adds.
Pekrun, a leading researcher in the area of emotions in the classroom, has a theory: he proposes that emotions have two underlying components – how much a student values what they are doing and how much control the student believes he or she has over a task.
For instance, an emotion like enjoyment is the product of a student highly valuing what they are doing in conjunction with feeling a high level of control over the task. On the other hand, however, anxiety is experienced when a student highly values a task but feels that they have no control. The incongruence of these two things that causes discomfort.
“The anxiety can be wiped off only when the students enjoy what they are doing, be it any task in life. Not everything can be learnt from books. Parents must take their children to the markets and help them calculate the prices of essentials that they buy. They should be faced with real life examples all the time, At every step, teachers and students should encourage children to learn and ask questions, instead of mugging up for the sole purpose of taking an exam,” Tapashi says.
“If you are a teacher, it is important to build a good relationship with your students. You should be caring and compassionate. Once in a while, I arrange gatherings and fun activities for my students. I realise that the more they can connect with me, the more they want to take my help to learn,” she adds.
In a final message to students, she says: “Treat mathematics as a challenge. Confront it, deal with it patiently and you will get there. Exams and good marks may matter, but these are not everything. What you ultimately learn, how much you enjoy what you learn and how you utilise your knowledge in real life is what really matters. Motivate yourself. Ask questions. Ask questions till you have the courage to face a challenge. The moment you stop asking questions, you stop learning.”