Solving the adult problem of math anxiety

Math and I have never quite seen eye to eye. I got tired of trying to find his x when she had clearly moved on, and when it came to to calculating interest, I just said that it wasn’t my fault I was never as calculative as math was. If I had a dollar for every time I said, “I hate math!”, my bank account would look very different today. But jokes aside, math anxiety is something that many adults around the world today live with. The struggle is real.

Math – is it the problem?

Defined by Mark H. Ashcroft as “a feeling of tension, apprehension, or fear that interferes with math performance”, math anxiety may have more than one reason, but it commonly stems from traumatic experiences in math learning early in life. And kids with such experience are more likely to grow up into adults who’d rather not relive another bad experience with math. It’s not uncommon to hear adults say that they’re just not a ‘math person’, and even change their college majors and career directions to avoid math!

But is math entirely to be blamed? Are kids who are averse to math as adults simply ‘bad’ at it, or are just not talented math people? There’s more to it than meets the eye. We may not have to sit for a regular math test anymore, but we were curious about what yesterday’s students a.k.a. today’s math-anxious adults can do in terms of stress management. Math professor and psychologist Dr Queena Lee Chua shared with the Philippine Daily Inquirer that the fear of math is not natural, but rather, a learned reaction. This fear can usually be traced to a prior unpleasant experience.

Is it too late for the big kids?

While we try our best to get our kids to love learning, and to enjoy a subject such as math, it’s going to be trickier to do so if we’re averse to math ourselves. So if you’re one of the unfortunate kids who happened to have a tough time with math in the past, here’s how we can reframe our own thinking about math today before we try convincing our kids.

According to Chua, problem-solving is the core of mastering math. In order to change our mind about math, we need to see ourselves as problem solvers. Chua identifies three keys to acquiring the skill of problem-solving – perseverance, mental strength and number sense.

Solving the problem

As it is with acquiring any new skills, perseverance is key. A little time devoted to math everyday beats sitting down for hours at a stretch. It’s also helpful to remember to have a little patience with yourself. Math anxiety didn’t develop in a day for you, so likewise, tackling it would take a similar amount of time.

Gaining mental strength is akin to building physical strength, it’s a muscle that needs to be flexed. Math learners today have a variety of learning resources to choose from, so don’t limit yourselves to conventional math learning tools like worksheets full of sums (which may be linked to your math anxiety in the first place). Math games (like Zapzapmath) are a great way to train your brain and to spend some time with your kids too!

Finally, we come to developing number sense. There is a good amount of debate surrounding its definition, but it’s generally refers to “the sense of what numbers mean and an ability to perform mental mathematics and to look at the world and make comparisons.” (Gersten and Chard, 2001)

Start by finding areas in your daily life where you can do simple mental calculations. Take notice of the speedometer in your car and gauge the distance between your home and workplace. Time your morning routine and see how long it takes to get ready. Try estimating the value of your groceries as you fill your shopping cart. Celebrate every time your estimation gets more accurate. For people living with math anxiety, every little victory counts. Pun intended.

Getting math anxiety relief

While there are many common beliefs surrounding math anxiety, one thing’s for sure. You are not alone in the effort to be free from it. Math is an integral part of daily life, and despite whatever negative experience you may have with it in the past, you can choose to see it from a different angle today!

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