Aditya was doing well in school till Class 4. But his Math scores started dipping from Class 5 onwards. Noticing the change, his parents set up time-based practice tests for him but he would avoid them. Then they requested his teacher to address the issue. Even that effort turned out futile and when he failed to solve even simple problems, his classmates would giggle at him. Aditya would feel ashamed and confused, and think that “Math is not my cup of tea! I have to avoid it.” Aditya is not alone.
Aditya is one of the millions of students in the country affected by Math anxiety. Those students with this problem experience the fear of failure while doing Math. This hugely compromises their performance in Math and affects them in real-life situations as well. The latest Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) has found that more than half of youth in the 14-18 age group struggled to do simple Class 2-level division.
Low Math performance and high Math anxiety are common in India. We need to tackle it head-on. Ask any 10 people around you about students who get tensed while doing Math and stories will come tumbling out. Considering the seriousness of the situation, the Union Minister of Human Resource Development, Prakash Javadekar, has formed a committee to help students overcome Math phobia.
Here are three ways to recognise early signs of Math anxiety — identifying negative experiences, avoidance behaviour and knowledge deficit in fundamentals.
Negative experiences: In a culture where mistakes are looked down upon, students who make mistakes face social embarrassment from teachers, peers and parents. These lead to negative self-talk that “I am not good at Math.” It is important to know that we as teachers and parents ‘infect’ the children with the phobia. If parents display anxiety during homework, then the child will definitely pick it from them. To understand their level of comfort with the subject, ask the children to mark sad, neutral or joyful emotions during assignments. Based on this observation, parents or teachers can work with students for better learning outcomes.
Avoidance behaviour: Students are either positive, neutral or anxious about Math. Those who are anxious follow a pattern to avoid doing Math. They don’t get motivated about the subject, try to avoid the teacher, keep homework pending till the last minute and avoid preparing for Math exams. They rely on memorising rather than understanding the concepts. They get panicked during Math tests and use expressions like, “My mind went blank.” They display the classic symptoms of stress: fight, flight or freeze while studying a Math problem in-depth. Adults need to tune in to these emotions and address the issue rather than dismissing it as incompetence.
Knowledge deficit: We also know that a lack of understanding in primary grades leads to higher anxiety. If not understood properly, concepts like place value, numerical comparison, carry-over, borrowing in addition and subtraction, and long division will lead to anxiety later on. The easiest way of mistake detection and feedback is holding a diagnostic quiz for these concepts. Each diagnostic question can be a multiple choice question, where common misconceptions become the options. Individualised feedback on the misconceptions will build a better foundation and instil confidence in the student.
However, Math anxiety should not be confused with dyscalculia, which is the difficulty in acquiring basic arithmetic skills. Math anxiety is more of an emotional disturbance, and in an emotionally safe zone, these students will actually do well, and grow on to love the beauty of the subject.
For better learning outcomes, we have to tackle Math anxiety with research-informed steps. These include a focus on eliminating negative Math experiences, early recognition of avoidance behaviour and monitoring knowledge in fundamental topics.