DUNWOODY, Ga.—Immediately before taking a math exam, Irina De La Rosa’s palms start to sweat, her heart beats faster and her mind goes blank.
“At the time of the test, it’s like I have a block … and it’s like I just see a lot of numbers” the Georgia State University Perimeter College student said, noting that this type of anxiety only happens when she’s taking a math test.
Experts say that this “block” can be directly related to a condition called mathematics anxiety. A report published on the National Institutes of Health web page, defines this as “a feeling of tension and anxiety that interferes with the manipulation of numbers and the solving of mathematical problems in ordinary life and academic situations.”
The report stresses that math anxiety can be rooted in multiple factors, including genetics, gender, age and culture. For example, studies show that as students get older, their positive attitudes about math deteriorate, especially among girls. Other research reveals that persistent gender stereotypes about boys being better at math than girls also may influence math anxiety. The report said that females rate themselves lower regarding math comprehension and express more anxiety about the subject—although studies indicate that “males and females, in countries that provide equal education for both genders, show little or no difference in actual mathematical performance.”
Even so, students troubled by mathematics anxiety tell you it is a big deal, and further research indicates its prevalence impacts 11 percent of university students in one study and nearly 70 percent in another.
Teresa Scheufele can identify. Although she has won Math Student of the Year awards while studying nursing at Perimeter College, Scheufele has had to work extra hard.
“Math anxiety has plagued me forever,” she said. “I didn’t think I was smart enough to do math. Then, I said, ‘I can do this.’”
Adopting a “can do” attitude is a must for students who want to do well in math, according to Theo Tate, math and science supervisor at the Perimeter College Learning and Tutoring Center (LTC) on Georgia State’s Dunwoody Campus.
“Math anxiety starts with the irrational fear of numbers,” Tate said. “I tell students that this anxiety starts with how they approach it. If you say you’re not good at something, you’re not going to be good at it.”
Tate manages 40 tutors, with most of them focused on helping students who are struggling in math. The LTCs offer free individual, group and workshop sessions. The goal, he said, is to ensure that students have a thorough understanding of math, even if this means reviewing and teaching basic concepts.
“We’re not just teaching them how to do it,” he said. “We’re teaching them how to be successful … how to learn.”
Tate also emphasizes that math is a subject that must be practiced through repetition to gain confidence.
“You have to do it over and over,” he said. “You have to be properly prepared, and you won’t have that anxiety.”
Despite her challenges, De La Rosa — who is following a Business pathway — sets high standards for herself.
After making a B on a math exam, she quipped: “I’m not looking for an 81. “I’m looking for a 100. I don’t want a small grade, I want an A and A-plus, if I can.”
To manage their anxiety, De La Rosa and Scheufele use multiple strategies. Deep breathing exercises and meditation are among the techniques that help them. In addition, Scheufele shares the following as ways for students to address math anxiety:
- Show up for every class.
- Explore and use Perimeter College resources that can help.
- Practice problems often.
- Learn good test-taking skills.
- Take advantage of Georgia State University tutoring services.
De La Rosa and Scheufele also encourage students to ask their professors for help and visit campus study labs as often as possible.
Tate agrees. He remembers a Perimeter student who came to the LTC after a dismal performance on her first statistics exam.
“She was almost in tears,” he recalled. “She said, ‘I just need this one class to graduate’.”
Tate suggested she visit the LTC regularly. The student showed up daily. In the end, she earned an A in the class.
“Don’t give up,” De La Rosa said. “It’s hard, but it’s a good feeling to know that you’re getting better. That you know about more things than you knew before.”
The following are web links to resources available to Georgia State University students experiencing math anxiety:
49 Ways to Manage Test Anxiety
Photo: Teresa Scheufele has won awards for her success in math, but she works hard to control the anxiety she experiences in that subject. Photo by Bill Roa.