As soon as I logged on to take my research statistics midterm, I saw the clock running down. For a microsecond, I froze right there. My first strategy was self talk. “You can do this”. “You’re prepared”. “You’ve got this – Let’s go”. I progressed OK through the test, but my thinking was really slowed down. Concepts I knew how to apply easily that morning I just wasn’t able to do as easily now. I was very prepared for the test, but I second guessed myself constantly. Time was dwindling away as I answered and checked and rechecked. All the while I was totally unsure of everything that I knew before I saw that timer.
Ok, only a few more to go. Good, I still have 45 minutes left. I started to get my confidence back, when all of a sudden as I clicked “next” the last 3 application problems popped up in front of me. The moment I scanned the first scenario and the data, my mind just literally blanked. I was reading the words, but they didn’t make sense. I started getting really irritated by every little sound in the room. I yelled at my dog who was just looking at me. I began to sweat. Panic jolted through me. I was out of control! I had to get up and walk around or I would just scream. I drank some water and walked to the bathroom to try and bring myself back. After 15 minutes, I was calm enough to skip that problem and try to make a plan for the other 2 problems. Only 30 minutes left.
“You can do this”. “You’re prepared”. “You’ve got this – Let’s go”. These are all the comments I have whispered into students’ ears over the years as they experienced math anxiety. Right now, It was slightly helpful, but didn’t really give me tools to get through it mentally intact. For those 15 minutes when I couldn’t hold it together, I felt like a failure. I wanted to have a melt down. I needed a plan.
Meanwhile, before the exam time limit cut off access to the test, I emailed my professor and let her know that I was having math anxiety and could I please have additional time? At first she said “NO! That’s not fair for other students. I need to keep the testing conditions the same.” Tears streamed down, but I didn’t let that stop me. I kept pushing on. When I submitted my additional answers through email, I presented some research to her about math anxiety and timed tests. She didn’t respond, but in the end she did count all of my work. I was so grateful, but the rest of the day, I felt shell shocked as the stress hormones were still circulating in my system.
This was the first time I experienced debilitating math anxiety. Due to my maturity, I had tools to effectively get myself through the experience and advocate for myself. Because of their lack of life experience, students generally don’t. Many students simply don’t have coping strategies to help them push through like I did.
Math anxiety for students is real. Some students feel the anxiety every time they do math. As an instructional math coach, I see anxiety rob students of their confidence. They second guess themselves so they don’t learn to trust their intuition about math. Many times, as I work with them I struggle with the questions, How will they learn, if they aren’t able to use their intuition to cross over from the known to the unknown? How can I help them?
As teachers, it is our job to investigate preventable contributing factors in our classroom environments that bring on math anxiety. We need to change our lesson design and delivery to reduce anxiety inducing scenarios such as timed tests. Students need to have resources and tools available to them, so they can learn to get through anxiety with strategies that have been explicitly taught to them and they have practiced beforehand.
Below are some resources for learning about math anxiety and strategies for what to do about it. What are your experiences with test anxiety? Do you have any strategies to share that work especially well? I look forward to your feedback. ~Susie
Youcubed.org is a great resource to learn all the latest research about math anxiety. This is a link to the math anxiety resource page. I especially love the articles about how math anxiety affects cognition.
Test Anxiety tips for students from Elementary School Counselors
Edutopia has several articles about anxiety for teachers to learn practical information and strategies to teach their students: