Panic has officially set in as the student stares blankly at the math test sitting in front of her. She doesn’t have a clue how to do the problems even though she was pretty sure that she knew how to do them in class yesterday. The panic worsens as the time ticks away, and now she is certain that she is going to fail. She finally gives up and turns in a blank test. This student will surely tell you that she is not a good math student.

Everyone has experienced math anxiety on some level at some point in their lives. Math anxiety is a feeling of intense frustration or helplessness about one’s abilities to do math. People experience math anxiety because they believe certain things that cause them to think that they can’t do the problems. For instance, a student who believes he can’t do the problems because he does not think that he has a math brain may experience a feeling of helplessness when confronted with a difficult math problem.

While it is true that many people do not believe that they are good at math, it is not true that they are incapable of math success. It is human nature to think mathematically, and it does not require a special set of math genes. Even small children have the ability to reason with abstract ideas. Consider the idea of a child conceptualizing that three spoons or three flowers is connected to the abstract concept of the number 3. If you really think about that, it is amazing what our brains can accomplish! The problem arises when we have negative math experiences that create beliefs that we can’t succeed. We see this when a student is humiliated or punished for not succeeding with math, when a student continually fails math tests, when a student has a discouraging or negative teacher, when a student feels stupid because he has math gaps that keep him from understanding more complex concepts.

When a student struggles with math anxiety, we can do many things to help him. It is important to first consider the things NOT to do. Do not rationalize the feelings by finding reasons why the feelings are ok or inevitable. Do not suppress the feelings by trying as hard as possible to not feel the anxiety. And do not deny the feelings by refusing to acknowledge that they exist.

Here are some strategies that students can use to overcome math anxiety.

- Pay attention in class. Find a balance between trying to write down everything being said and really paying attention because your brain can’t do both things. The best strategy is to take notes of concepts that you need to know, and then make truly understanding the focus.
- Do your homework. Many students don’t do their homework because they believe that they already know how to do it or because they don’t understand it anyway. The homework provides the repetition that helps you understand.
- Work many problems. Start with the easiest problems that look the most like the examples in the book. If you get stuck, skip it for now. Work through problems that you have the answers to because it doesn’t help to practice the problems incorrectly. Work with a friend so that you can share ideas and solutions.
- Get help. If you don’t understand, get help. Work with a teacher, a tutor, a friend, or a parent until you understand the concept. Use problems that gave you trouble in the homework lessons so that you can conquer them.
- Prepare for tests. Do not cram. Study regularly so that your brain isn’t stressed and on overload for the test. Make sure that you memorize formulas and then practice problems.
- Eat. The brain uses a large number of calories, and if you haven’t provided enough nutrients, it won’t work at full capacity.
- Develop relaxation techniques. Different breathing and thought techniques can help you calm down if you start to panic. Research some different techniques until you find something that will work for you.
- Look over the exam. Get an idea of the exam as a whole. If you see easy problems that you know, do those first. Save the hardest problems for last.
- Overcome panic. When you look at the test and feel like you can’t do any of the problems, practice your relaxation techniques. Then find a problem that looks the most like something you know how to do. Poke and prod at it while your brain unclenches.
- Move on. If you get stuck on a problem, move on. The frustration and anxiety start to build the longer you look at a problem that you don’t know how to do.
- Check your answers. Even if you haven’t finished the entire test, give yourself two or three minutes to look for any “oops” mistakes. Fixing those mistakes is usually worth more to your score than trying to figure out the last troublesome question.
- Keep things in perspective. This exam is not a measurement of your overall intelligence. It is not deciding whether you will be a success in life. It does not define your worth as a human. It is an exam. Don’t make it more than it is.

Students succeed in math when they think that they can succeed. It is our responsibility to show them that they can!