Math Anxiety

On Friday I attended a Safe Schools Professional Development session with our school team which consisted of myself, a parent, a teacher and an educational assistant.  The afternoon was a great opportunity to hear from experts in the field and discuss how our students and community feel regarding safety.  However it also gave me insight into some of the concerns parents see when it comes to academic issues, and in particular math.

The concept of timed math tests came up with the idea that these are good for children to develop automaticity and recall of facts.  One might think this is reasonable.  In fact a quick Google search of "timed math drills" will net you thousands of websites where parents and teachers can print off worksheets or direct children to play games all focused on improving the speed at which computations are recalled.  But do these develop solid math abilities in children and decrease the perception that they can't "do" math?  In my opinion the answer is no.  In fact the scenario our parent committee member described with her very capable daughter is a perfect example of what happens to students when confronted with timed math tests - anxiety.  Her child is in grade 5 and has never demonstrated any struggles or difficulty when it comes to school.  However this year it began to change.  Her teacher had started to give timed math tests on the basic facts in multiplication, division, addition and subtraction.  Her first test did not go well and she began to show anxiety the night before and in the morning of the tests.

As the parent recalled the stress that her daughter went through each night trying to prepare for the timed test I began to wonder what other less capable students must have been going through.  I also wondered how this type of test fits into the current methods of teaching math and in particular the problem solving model we have been trying to develop in all our classrooms.  I struggled to give her an explanation of the merits of timed tests, mostly because I don't agree that they provide children with the necessary foundation for understanding mathematical concepts.  In my experience as a classroom teacher, learning coordinator and administrator I have seen the power that the problem solving method has on developing mathematical concepts.  It allows children to explore their understanding deeply, to experiment with strategies and to learn from each other.  When teachers provide students with rich problems to solve children are challenged and begin to develop a more meaningful understanding of concepts.  They communicate their strategies in exciting ways such as Bansho and math congress which provides students with a sense of being part of a community of learners and to reflect and defend their thinking.  For anyone not familiar with the 3 part lesson in math or the problem solving model it may look "messy" and loud when you walk into a classroom, but that is the best part.  Students are engaged actively in math.

I fully understand the importance of knowing math facts and the place they have in the curriculum.  It's the methods we use in our math classes that are important.  Let's provide students with opportunities to explore math in an way that doesn't raise their anxiety levels.  Where they can see themselves as someone who can do math.

Below are a couple of links to research in the area of timed tests.

Education Week


The Anxiety Curriculum

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  • Barb Seaton

    The math anxiety piece is a big one. The PRIME Number and Operations Background & Strategies book (available in most Resource Rms) states that math anxiety can be caused by a number of factors such as an emphasis on right or wrong answers rather than process, an emphasis on speed, viewing math as a set of rules and the myth that math requires some innate ability. The same Prime document suggests that changes in math education to the focus on conceptual understanding, the use of math tools and using open questions can help reduce math anxiety. Teaching through problem solving, as you mentioned in your blog, addresses all of that !
    Further to your " timed test " piece, in the " Guide to Effective Instruction, volume 5, Teaching the Basic Facts and Multidigit Computation", suggests that a time limit not be put on students who are learning their facts for a host of reasons such as it discourages double-checking, intimidates those who can't quickly recall their facts, creates negative attitudes, and finally doesn't provide a window into student thinking or tell what strategies a student is using.
    Thanks so much for bringing this to light, Dave. The more we encourage dialogue - the more we can all learn!

  • Mr.Fife

    Thanks so much for your comments Barb. I'm glad you pointed out the information in PRIME and the Guide to Effective Instruction as they are such important documents for teachers. Thank you too for your leadership in math for our district.