By Ewart Newton

10 August 2015 - 06:46

'Maths-phobia can easily translate into students exhibiting anxiety.' Photo (c) Chris de Kok, licensed under CC-BY-2.0 and adapted from the original.
'Maths-phobia can easily translate into students exhibiting anxiety.' Photo ©

Chris de Kok, licensed under CC-BY-2.0 and adapted from the original.

Ewart Newton of JUMP Math, a social enterprise working with the British Council as part of an international work-study exchange programme, makes some suggestions for the maths classroom.

Teachers often face many obstacles in the classroom: a wide range in abilities, lack of support or resources, large class sizes, time constraints – the list goes on. But perhaps one of the more difficult obstacles is the fear of mathematics. Maths-phobia can easily translate into students exhibiting anxiety, a lack of involvement, and even behavioural issues.

Research has confirmed that maths anxiety is linked to poor maths performance, and can make teaching the subject a daily struggle. So how can teachers help students overcome their fear of maths? How can they instil a love of a subject that so many students (and adults!) find intimidating?

The first step is to build confidence

It’s no surprise that confidence is a huge factor in students’ anxiety towards mathematics. Previous negative experiences with the subject can lead to a negative and defeatist attitude. To overcome this, you should provide students with regular confidence-building exercises that look challenging but enable all students to do well. This boost in confidence and self-efficacy can decrease anxiety and fear, as students feel more and more capable and motivated.

Strengthen students’ basic skills

Linked closely to building confidence is strengthening students’ basic numerical skills. Giving students opportunities to practise and master essential skills for computational fluency is essential: when students don’t have the basic skills at hand, their working memories are taxed and this can be both distracting and discouraging. You should get students to practise mental maths and basic maths skills regularly, incorporating them into games and warm-up activities.

Use a step-by-step approach

There is evidence that even strong students of maths can feel daunted and overwhelmed when there is too much information at once and not enough time to practise. It's a good idea to chunk material into smaller steps so that students are able to understand and master one step before moving to the next. An important design feature of JUMP Math’s programme is an approach we call 'guided discovery', where the building of skills and concepts is carefully scaffolded, so that students have time to try out and practise each step. Especially in a subject such as mathematics, a gap in understanding can be a huge obstacle to progress, so it is vital that students fully master each step before moving on.

Develop a growth mindset

Research and literature on 'growth mindset' – the belief that our abilities can be developed – have illuminated the role of student effort and self-efficacy, and gained significant footing in educational practice. Encouraging students to take risks and have a growth mindset is motivating. By giving students problems that get harder, you can show them they can surmount any challenge through hard work and practice.

The attitude of teachers

Last, but certainly not least, a teacher’s attitude towards mathematics can have a huge influence. Just as we ask teachers to demonstrate a love of reading when it comes to literacy, we must also encourage teachers to show a love of maths. Teachers are instrumental in creating positive and active learning environments, such as by incorporating maths puzzles and games into explanations and examples.

By demonstrating an enjoyment and appreciation of mathematics, teachers can encourage a healthy relationship with the subject. And if teachers aren't quite comfortable with maths themselves, a good idea is to invest in professional development. Learning how and why to teach maths in ways that build understanding and excitement can really help reduce maths anxiety in teachers themselves. Professional development also helps teachers network with fellow educators to mentor and support each other in teaching mathematics.

Ewart Newton, vice president of development at JUMP Math, is mentoring UK student Emily Cairns as part of the British Council’s Students for Social Impact programme.

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