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Yes We Can! Overcoming Math Anxiety
Transcript of Yes We Can! Overcoming Math Anxiety
"A feeling of tension, apprehension,
or fear that interferes with math
performance." - Mark Ashcraft, Ph.D.
Where did this
"I was never
good at math!"
Winner of 2008 Presidential Award for
Excellence in Mathematics and
Working towards doctorate from
Columbia University in math anxiety.
"I can help my child until algebra, and then, forget it!"
"It's okay, dear,
I was bad at math too."
"We figured out that
there are 256 ways to
personalize a Wendy's
someone was paying
attention in math
Teachers. Yes, teachers.
"Who's Teaching Your Kid to Dislike Math?"
Gwen Dewar, Ph.D.
Sian Beilock and colleagues tracked 117 American
first- and second-graders across the school year.
In this study they all had female teachers. Some of
these teachers scored high on a test of math anxiety
and others did not.
The students' math skills were tested at the
beginning of the school year, and again at the
end of the year. The results from the teachers
with high anxiety and no anxiety were compared.
The results: the higher a teacher's math
anxiety, the lower the girls' overall math
Can we conclude that teachers with math
anxiety are worse teachers?
Not so fast! There was NO difference in abilities
shown in the boys!
What does this show us? The teachers appeared
to have taught the material but passed along a
gender stereotype that it is acceptable and even
desirable to dislike math as a woman.
But where do we begin?
Let's Fix This!
What do students tell us?
Step 1: Get these students talking.
"Well, I was going
to say, 'I love
math.' But I
forgot how to spell
it and just wanted
to build more."
Build a structure that represents how you feel about math.
"This says, 'I love math.'
See, I, a heart, and a number sign.
"Math keeps building you
up and you learn more
each year and then
it's like you understand
And then there are
"This is a math
class and it's like
a prison. Yeah, math
class is like a prison."
"This is the math teacher
at the top. And the
bottom pieces chops up
the students when they
get the wrong answers."
"This is a math cannon. It blows off your head
if you fail math. Then you are dead."
"This isn't really anything.
But it's how I feel about
math, and that's why it's
all sharp things that poke you.
Step 2: Create a safe and
Activities to Develop Trust
Students sit in a circle and the teacher begins by stating a product to be developed. For example,
today we are inventing a new car that will be the most amazing car you've ever seen.
Everyone will get to contribute a great feature to add to the car, but you only have 10 seconds or
less to describe it.
The first student starts with a suggestion, such as, "This car will have wings and can fly whenever
the traffic gets bad." The next student clockwise in the circle says, "Yes, and it will have a hot
chocolate maker in the dashboard." The next student says, "Yes, and ..." Continue the description
until every student has contributed one feature. After the last student contributes, have a good
laugh and applaud the marvelous new car you have invented!
The merits of this exercise are that everyone's ideas, no matter how crazy or off-beat, are accepted.
The "Yes, And..." Game
Select an item of the day, for example, a piece of fruit. Students gather in a circle and
each student will be given 10 seconds or so to state which piece of fruit they are today
and why. You may need to take the first turn the first few times you play this game.
An example might be, "Today I am an orange, because I feel tough and grouchy on
the outside, but inside I have lots of good ideas that are like seeds that might grow
into something great later on." Or, "Today I am grapes, because I like to spend time
with lots of my friends together."
Listen carefully, because students will reveal how they are feeling emotionally that
day in a very powerful, non-threatening way.
Theme of the Day
Get a recording of a relaxing piece of classical music. Before you start it, ask the students to take off their shoes and lie comfortably on the floor.
"Close your eyes and begin to inhale slowly and deeply. Listen to the music." (Play the music quietly.)
"Immerse yourself in the music. Listen so carefully that you lose all outside thoughts. Just listen." (Pause) "Become one with the sound. Just listen." (Pause)
"You are now deeply relaxed and your mind is open. I'm going to slowly count to 5. As I count, let your eyes slowly open and enjoy the remaining sounds of the music." (Count.)
Help the student enjoy the calm and quiet of the room. They are now in the right mindset to work on a more challenging concept.
Calm Down with Music
Notice your feelings; become aware. Name it. "I am feeling nervous now and I don't want
to keep hearing about fractions."
Welcome the feeling. Don't fight it or judge it. Notice it being present and passing through.
You have felt this feeling sometime before, and you know it will go away.
What does this emotion feel like? If it were a color, what color would it be and why? How
do I know this emotion is here? How does it feel in my body? What thoughts are attached
to it? What happens when I pay attention to it? What happens when I resist it? Be a
scientist and experiment.
Know that the emotion does not define you and it does not possess you. It is passing through.
You can choose to express it appropriately or not. Notice it passing. Let it go.
R.A.I.N. - 4 Steps to Manage Strong Emotions
If possible, work with an art teacher or invite a carpenter to join your class for the hour. Obtain wood scraps pre-cut to create toolboxes. Home Depot will do the
cutting for you if you bring your exact measurements! Alternatively you could use cardboard. Be creative with materials for handles. Supply hammers, nails, glue, etc.
Create a toolbox in a class period. Tell the students that they will be keeping these
toolboxes for the year and they are the only ones using them, so they should
personalize them however they would like. Encourage creativity.
Begin each successive class with the introduction of a tool. "Today I am going to
share one of the tools from my toolbox. This is a hammer. (Display a cardboard
cutout of a hammer.) I use it to smash feelings of self-doubt when I notice them
starting. It feels great to take out my hammer and bam, bam, BAM! It feels like I
have taken charge of that feeling and it goes away.
Make Your Own Toolbox
Allow students to invent their own tools, and encourage them to introduce a tool each day.
Students will invent creative and useful tools! Once a student brought in a cardboard
bulls-eye. He called it his "center-and-enter" tool. Before he starts something challenging,
he takes out his center-and-enter tool and focuses his concentration. He stares at the tool,
allows his emotions to calm and distracting thoughts to leave, and then enters a new
mindset to learn.
At the end of class, give students the last few minutes to make their own center-and-enter
tool, if they choose. Remind students that they are not copying, but they are sharing
For more great ideas, like these, consider attending:
The Social-Emotional Learning Institute
The Nueva School, Hillsborough, CA
A one-week session that provides a huge variety of techniques to develop social and emotional learning for students of all ages.
Step 3: Continue the discussion.
No one was ever born knowing math. Everyone
has to learn each piece of it, and everyone will hit points at times when it is frustrating.
It's how you deal with that frustration that makes all the difference. It takes...
Persistance. No task is impossible if you persist
until you succeed. Everyone will experience these
obstacles. Maybe there is a great tool to be made!
Impulse Control. There are many more fun things
to do that wrestle with a challenging math problem
that completely stumps you. But none of those
activities are nearly as important.
Everybody makes mistakes! Laugh at them,
celebrate them as opportunities to learn,
and move on!
Focused Attention. All of the information
needed is out there, but requires effort on
your part to stay focused and listen
carefully. If you don't understand you have
to ask questions. This becomes much easier
as your classroom develops into an
emotionally safe place.
Attitude is everything. If you think you can,
or you think you can't, you're right. What
tool can you develop to keep your attitude
Step 4: Find when the
trouble first began.
Most students will tell a story of when
math was fun, and when it suddenly
was no longer fun. What made
it no longer fun?
Start back with the year that the
student enjoyed math. Review
these concepts and help the
student to see that when they
understand the material it is
Keep progressing through the concepts until
you hit a stumbling block. Help the student to
remain calm, and assure him/her that you will
work through it together and you will not quit.
Make connections. Help the
student see how these concepts
relate to what he/she
is currently studying in class.
Sometimes the teachers who were so fun
caused the problem. Any class that lets
students coast, has no accountability,
and no reasonable benchmarks is fun
for the students. No one fails, everyone
is a winner! But those students are not
prepared for the following year.
Often a concept that was especially challenging
at the time becomes much easier for a student
who has matured significantly since the first
Celebrate Success! Be careful not to dole
out praise that is not earned, but get
excited when a major roadblock has
Tell the student how excited
you are for them, and how
much you look forward
to moving forward.
Celebrating a significant moment
releases endorphins, similar to
narcotic drugs. Go ahead and get giddy!
Revel in it! Help that student develop
an addiction to success in learning a
challenging math topic.
Remember the parents who may have unknowingly
contributed to this student's feelings of inadequacy.
Help parents to see their child in a new light, as a
talented mathematician with unlimited potential.
Students who experience that thrill
of genuine success have the greatest
gift! They know the feeling of
accomplishment that only comes from
working through a huge obstacle.
Savor the moment!
And one more thing...
You could also just ignore these students' feelings.
You are busy and don't have time to molly-coddle
these children who might not have any ability
In that case, remember these helpful tips:
Thank you for attending!
Please return the LEGO bags because my students would miss them!
and other family members
Researchers at the University of Chicago say they found that for the highly math-anxious there is a strong link between math success and activity in areas of the brain involved in controlling attention and regulating negative emotional reactions.
For math-anxious individuals to succeed, they need to focus on controlling their emotions, she said.
"Essentially, overcoming math anxiety appears to be less about what you know and more about convincing yourself to just buckle down and get to it," Beilock said.
"When you let your brain do its job, it usually will," co-researcher Ian Lyons said. "If doing math makes you anxious, then your first task is to calm yourself down."