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9 tips to help students with ‘mathematics anxiety’

IB World magazine shares some advice from IB teachers and experts to help children feel confident in their abilities

Sweaty palms, a knotted stomach and an intense feeling of panic – mathematics anxiety is a real psychological condition for many students.

Mathematics anxiety is a feeling of tension that interferes with the manipulation of numbers and the solving of mathematical problems in ordinary life and academic situations.

While the subject obviously does not present a real danger, mathematics anxiety prompts a physical response within the body. It releases stress hormones, such as cortisol, which are characteristic of the fight or flight response. Another study found that anticipating a mathematics test activates the brain’s ‘pain matrix’, which only responds to painful stimuli.

It’s not clear why mathematics invokes so much fear, but researchers suggest many contributing factors. Mathematics anxiety could be passed down from teachers and parents to children, while the pressure of timed tests and risk of public embarrassment could induce panic.

Whatever the reason, mathematics anxiety can be detrimental to a student’s confidence and performance. Acknowledging mathematics anxiety as a real condition is the first step to easing worries, followed by spending extra time helping students, and making instructions clear and simple. But there are other methods IB teachers and experts around the world are using to make mathematics less intimidating and more fun for students…

  1. Gail Schwiersch


Reflection is vital – students with mathematics anxiety often feel like they don’t understand anything when it’s often far from the truth. I encourage my students to write short reflections on the concepts they’ve learned and the discussions and debates that have taken place as recommended by researcher Jo Boaler. When they’re able to describe their conceptual understanding, it helps them realize they do understand more than they thought they did.

Gail Schwiersch, IB Diploma Programme (DP) and Middle Years Programme Teacher (MYP), Branksome Hall, Toronto, Canada

  1. Go over the lesson two to four times

Mathematics is like building a logical pyramid – one shaky layer and everything built on top is likely to come crashing down. But often a subject that seemed impossible at first suddenly starts clicking into place when you come back to it a second time. Doing mathematics is a bit like playing sport or learning a musical instrument. You can’t do it well immediately – it requires practice. Think of having a mathematical muscle in your mind that with practice gradually gets stronger.

Marcus du Sautoy, Professor of Mathematics and the Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at the Oxford University, UK

  1. Encourage creativity

I provide my students with a large piece of paper to spread their ideas out. I find using small paper is just too cluttered for their handwriting.  Large paper is easier for them to work out mathematics problems.

Sarah Hay, Primary Years Programme (PYP) Teacher at Al Sahwa Schools, Muscat, Oman

  1. Get students dancing

When I made the transition from a PYP to an MYP teacher, I knew there would be some difficult mathematics concepts to teach. Low and behold, not only were a few of my students nervous and unsure, but so was I. To get all of us in a positive headspace about mathematics, I introduced ‘daily dance breaks’ into lessons – students would push their desks to the edges of the classroom and I would show pop music videos for us all to dance to. The exercise always put us in a good mood, made students more comfortable with working in groups, and made them more focused and relaxed after the tension was relieved.

 – Latife Baydas, MYP Coordinator, Lynn-Rose Heights Private School, Mississauga, Canada.

  1. Mindset is key

I spend half of my time with my PhD students managing their psychological state of mind. It’s scary striking out into the unknown. They are trying to solve problems that no one knows the answer to. Believing that you will be able to reach your destination is crucial. You see students at all levels hit walls. But it’s about finding strategies to overcome those psychological barriers.

Marcus du Sautoy, Professor of Mathematics and the Charles Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science at the Oxford University, UK

  1. Be proactive

I am proactive in creating lesson plans that accommodate students with mathematics anxiety. Following the research of Jo Boaler, open-ended and collaborative lesson plans can prevent mathematics anxiety occurring in the first place. It’s also important to share these kinds of resources with other teachers whenever possible.

Gail Schwiersch, DP and MYP Teacher, Branksome Hall, Toronto, Canada

  1. Recognize the signs

It is vital that teachers have the ability to recognize the signs of mathematics anxiety in their students. These can include: drawing a blank in a test or the notion that incorrect answers are bad. It is also important that teachers emphasize the importance of the [working out] process of mathematics, as well as the answers.

Alfred Posamentier, Beverly Smith and Jay Stepelman, Authors of ‘Teaching Secondary Mathematics: Techniques and Enrichment Units’

  1. Give students space to make mistakes

If students work in pairs using whiteboards, they have the opportunity to collaborate and correct mistakes they make without their answers being permanently written in their schoolbooks. This way, no ‘evidence’ of mistakes are visible.

Sarah Hay, PYP Teacher, Al Sahwa Schools, Muscat, Oman

  1. Promote an open culture

Give students the opportunity to share what makes them anxious about mathematics and what they struggle with in particular.

– Karen Karp and John Van de Walle, Authors of ‘Elementary and Middle School Mathematics: Teaching Developmentally’


How do you help students who struggle with mathematics anxiety? Email your ideas to