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Maths anxiety is real: how teachers can help calm the nerves

Focusing on visual learning and using real world examples to understand more complex maths problems in an easy way to help students overcome their fear of the subject,  says Manan Khurma, Founder & Chairman, Cuemath

Roles such as data analysts and scientists, AI and machine learning specialists, robotics engineers, software and application developers as well as digital transformation specialists are set to witness a notable increase in demand as per the 2020 Future of Jobs report by the World Economic Forum. 

Evidently, a large majority of these careers are linked to Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education. The UAE government has long recognised the importance of STEM education. In fact, the UAE National Agenda is dedicated to driving the nation’s transition into a knowledge-based economy with innovation, research and development at its core. An important aspect of this transformation is the development of a first-rate education system that can equip the nation’s youth with the skills they need to excel in a digital world. 

To ensure a streamlined transition to a knowledge-based economy, it is important to address any challenges that may hinder classroom performance. Interestingly, 33% students globally, aged between 10 and 17, believe that they cannot do maths. According to a recent report by a math learning programme provider, students in the UAE are among the most stressed about maths; 25% students say they suffer from ‘maths anxiety’ surpassing the US at 23%. 

Before we delve into potential ways to address the issue, it is important to understand what maths anxiety means. 

Maths anxiety is defined as ‘a feeling of tension and apprehension that interferes with maths performance ability, the manipulation of numbers and the solving of mathematical problems in a wide variety of ordinary life and academic situations. It mainly stems from the way maths has been traditionally taught i.e., memorising concepts and theorems rather than understanding the practical aspect of it. 

A lack of strong fundamental knowledge of the subject can lead to children not just underperforming in school but also developing the fear that they are incapable of doing maths beyond their education years. To deal with this challenge, it is vital to change the way in which the subject is taught; there is a pressing need to make teaching methods more innovative, practical and concept-based. 

Teaching methods should try to remove the fear of maths in children and allow them to have fun while studying the subject. Teachers should demonstrate how a maths concept works through a combination of adaptive and visual learning techniques; and make it easier for children to grasp these concepts deeply and intuitively.  

Small changes in teaching methods can make a big difference to a child’s learning. Focusing on visual learning and using real-world examples to understand more complex maths problems in an easy way will help students overcome their fear of the subject. This in-depth learning methodology will in turn prepare children to become our future leaders, thinkers and game-changers.

In addition to a change in teaching methods, there are multiple ways in which teachers can support the child. Positive reinforcement and encouraging students is critical – a teacher should never chide a student for making mistakes. Rather, they should acknowledge and appreciate the efforts the student has made towards solving problems. Here are some quick tips for teachers to better support their students: 

Debunk the myth around maths: – one of the most common myths is that not everyone is capable of learning maths, i.e., some people have a ‘maths mind and some don’t. Or that maths is all about memorisation, or that it isn’t supposed to be fun or creative. To overcome maths anxiety, the first thing you need to do is to debunk every myth surrounding the subject. 

Positive reinforcement 

Encourage students and promote a positive environment when the student is learning maths. For instance, when a student is struggling to solve a problem or an equation or makes a mistake, assure them that it is ok and allow them to justify their thinking process. As you guide them through the process, it helps decrease the anxiety and they feel motivated instead. 

Back to basics 

Ensure the student is clear about the concepts and fundamentals of maths. Having a strong foundation and mastering it is the key to becoming good at the subject. 

Make maths fun 

Try unique, innovative teaching methods to make learning fun. Instead of abstract, repetitive drills, try to teach using exciting real-world examples, visuals, games, puzzles and simulations. 

Ease the time pressure 

Sometimes when a student reaches a wrong conclusion while solving an equation due to time constraints, it negatively impacts the way they feel about the subject. Teachers should allow the student more thinking time while solving maths problems. 

Develop a growth mindset 

A growth mindset is an idea that with practice and hard work, it is possible for students to develop and improve their intelligence levels, talent and abilities over time. Teachers should encourage students to view their mistakes as an opportunity to learn, to be resilient and believe that their efforts will lead to success. 

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