Monday, July 28, 2014

Five steps for eliminating math anxiety

Five steps to eliminate math anxiety

When I meet someone new at a party and we exchange the customary small talk ("What about this weather?" or "How about those Giants?"), inevitably the question of what I do for a living comes up. Even before I share that I have been a middle school math teacher for 25 years, I can pretty much be certain that the response will be something along the lines of "Oh, math...I never understood algebra" or "I hated math in high school...my teacher was the worst". What a buzz kill.

It doesn't take much of a detective to figure out that ours is a nation filled with mathphobics, or at least math-haters. There is plenty of evidence that babies do not come out of the womb hating math. So what happened between the time babies are born loving math and the time they become adults practically bragging that they can’t do math? SCHOOL.

School causes math anxiety. More accurately, the traditional instructional practices commonly used by math teachers - although it makes them highly regarded by their colleagues - are the very causes of the math anxiety experienced by our nation. I understand that there are other genuine causes of math anxiety that have nothing to do with schools, but for the purposes of this essay, I’ll only focus on math anxiety that is the direct result of our suck pedagogical practices in mathematics.

Five Steps
  1. Eliminate timed tests
  2. Provide students with a choice for assessing understanding
  3. Let students invent their initial understanding of the mathematics
  4. Teach multiple solution methods
  5. Encourage lots of student collaboration
It doesn’t have to be that way. Mathematics is an inherently interesting and beautiful and creative topic. So what can be done to keep our students thinking that is truly awesome? Here are my five steps for teaching math in a way that reduces the chance that students will develop math anxiety:

  1. Eliminate timed tests
  2. Provide students with a choice for assessing understanding
  3. Let students invent their initial understanding of the mathematics
  4. Teach multiple solution methods
  5. Encourage lots of student collaboration

Let’s take a brief look at each one.

1. Eliminate timed tests

It’s bad enough that math has the reputation for being a black-and-white, right-or-wrong subject, but the practically religious zeal with which teachers use timed tests is about the worst thing we can do in a math classroom. We know that when children are put under math stress they are less able to correctly solve problems. Timed tests also give students the idea that mathematical success is somehow connected to speed rather than critical thinking.

It is true that the Common Core State Standards of Mathematics uses the word fluency throughout the standards. Rather than using timed tests to teach (or measure) fluency, however, we should embed fluency building opportunities within number sense building activities. When students learn how to be flexible with numbers and quantities THIS is when fluency will naturally develop. Fluency, thus, can be developed in our students without causing fear and anxiety.

2. Provide students with a choice for assessing understanding

Since we know that students are less able to perform mathematical calculations when under stress, why do we continue to use stressful tests to measure student achievement? In a way, math tests are just longer versions of the timed tests that we already know are bad for students. Let’s seek methods of assessing our students without causing fear and anxiety.

Start by assessing students formatively and informally on a daily basis. As students are working in class, the teacher should wander around the room noting which students are confidently and competently solving the problems, and then record that with a clipboard and checklist. Why should the teacher bother with a stressful test if she has already personally observed students successfully solving the problems?

If an actual assessment activity is necessary, we should provide students with a choice in how they demonstrate their understanding. Students who like taking tests can take one. Students who would prefer an alternative can demonstrate their understanding by
  • making a video with screencasting software
  • performing a skit
  • standing at the whiteboard and solving problems
Giving students a voice in how they are assessed means students can choose the assessment method that they are the most comfortable with, thereby reducing math anxiety.

3. Let students invent their initial understanding of the mathematics

In a traditional classroom the teacher leads the discussion and shows students step-by-step how to solve the problem. Then students practice some problems in the classroom. Finally students go home to practice problems on their own. We in the ed biz call this the “gradual release” model.

This model of teaching leads students to believe that mathematics is not something discovered, but a fixed set of skills that is handed down from generation to generation. Since math is viewed as a fixed set of rules, a student who can’t immediately come up with the proper solution method is left only with the assumption that he is incompetent.

Instead, we need to foster an environment where students see mathematics as the creative endeavor that it is. Students should be empowered to create their own solution method or algorithm when necessary. We know that invention activities lead to deeper understanding in mathematics. Therefore, prior to teaching a particular content, students should be given the opportunity to use their natural number sense to invent their own solution method prior to being taught the “official” method.

4. Teach multiple solution methods

I have observed many of my Algebra students get stuck on a math problem that could easily be solved arithmetically or by guess-and-check. When I ask why they didn’t use one of the simple solution methods, students usually say that those are the “wrong” methods to use in an algebra class. Not only is math a bunch of rules, students also feel that there exists the added layer of complexity of using the “right” method.

As a direct result of #3, we need to teach students a variety of solution methods whenever possible. The very nature of mathematics is to find as many ways to solve a problem as possible. If this was not the case, the first time the Pythagorean Theorem was proven would have been enough for the mathematics community. Instead, the theorem has been proved over 300 different ways! We need to allow students to hunt for many different solution methods for a single problem, rather than forcing students to use one method to solve 30 problems. Students thrive when given the opportunity to re-create their own Pythagorean scenarios in class.

As students solve a single problem in multiple ways, they have the opportunity to compare and contrast the methods, see the connections between seeming unrelated methods, and develop a deeper understanding of the number sense that is inherent in that problem.

5. Encourage lots of student collaboration

Misery loves company? There’s safety in numbers? Two heads are better than one? Whatever meme you want to use, students thrive when given the opportunity to work with one another. We know that student discourse improves achievement. Let students talk, so they can learn! Math anxiety will not rear its ugly head when two students are talking to one another in their own kid-friendly language. While students are collaborating, the teacher should be grazing around the room collecting formative assessment data: who is using which technique, who invented something novel, who is struggling, etc?

Collaboration only makes sense! Imagine The Beatles trying to learn how to be a band together without being allowed to talk with one another. That is exactly what we do in class! Students are seated in rows, often with seating charts specifically designed to discourage talking.

While it’s no guarantee, my 25 years of experience says that implementing these five easy steps will go a long, long way towards preventing schools from causing math anxiety in our students! Reducing the math anxiety amongst our teachers...that's a story for another day.

Do you have anything you'd like to add to the list?