For many students, math can be an anxiety-inducing subject. For some, they’ve felt confused by the subject for years and their default attitude towards math has become pretty negative. For others, one bad experience, whether it was a particular lesson, test, or even teacher, can set the tone for their future feelings towards math. Because we know that students need to feel both physically and emotionally safe to fully engage in learning, we must find ways to ease their math anxiety and allow them to feel comfortable and confident in classrooms.
You might be thinking about a few of your students that you know struggle with math anxiety or even remembering how you felt as a student sitting in a math classroom. For me, I was so anxious during math class that I decided to eventually become a math teacher in order to ensure no student felt the way I did! There are many ways we as teachers can shift our students' experience in and perceptions of a particular subject and, here at Fishtank, we prioritize 6 strategies that can help ease the math anxiety your students may be feeling.
1. Conceptual Teaching
Fishtank Math lessons are centered around highly engaging, accessible Anchor Tasks. Rather than jumping right into a specific procedure or process that students need to memorize, these Anchor Tasks allow students to develop their conceptual understanding of the lesson. These tasks are designed to promote student thinking and collaboration as students work with peers to analyze, discuss, and ultimately solve. This conceptual framework can help ease student anxiety as it encourages students to take their time, make sense of a given problem, and work with others to determine a solving approach.
As the teacher, you then have the opportunity to guide students in assessing various solving approaches to determine what is most efficient. Students see the value in different solving methods and can ultimately work to abstract a particular procedure or process based on the conceptual understanding they develop.
By focusing the lesson on tasks designed to promote critical thinking rather than just looking for concrete answers immediately, students can feel more comfortable being curious, asking questions, and trying different approaches. Additionally, as students build their understanding of various concepts, they are better able to approach novel problems with confidence.
2. Contextualizing Mathematics
“When am I ever going to use this?” You have probably had to answer this question a few times in your classroom. For many students, their anxiety towards math and belief that they cannot be good at it presents itself as this overarching belief that the subject is useless. When students don’t feel comfortable in class, it is easier to pretend they don’t care about the topic anyway. To help fight against this, Fishtank lessons contextualize the concepts so students can see the relevance to their own lives, prior knowledge, and future learning opportunities.
In practice, this looks like intentionally activating students’ prior knowledge, using word problems in Anchor Tasks to ground the lessons, and explicitly connecting the topics of each lesson to those that came before and those that students will see next. By helping students see how the topics relate to their own lives and their learning over time, you encourage them to be more open and invested in the topic. In showing students the value of what they are learning, you can ease the anxiety they have about trying to learn something that previously felt overwhelming and irrelevant.
3. Partner and Group Work
Imagine you’re a student with some anxiety about math class. Now imagine that your entire class is looking at you to answer a question you aren’t confident about because your teacher just called on you. This probably wouldn’t help you feel amazing in math class. Instead, what if your teacher had given you a chance to work with a partner or small group first. Now when you get called on, not only do you feel more confident in your answer after bouncing ideas off of your classmates, but you now feel more comfortable with those classmates because you have had a chance to work together and build relationships.
At Fishtank, we believe that partner and group work can be incredibly beneficial for all students, but especially those with math anxiety. Fishtank lessons offer ample opportunities for students to engage with their classmates as they dig into problems. Students that are anxious to work independently or ask questions in front of the whole class have a chance to lean on their peers as they learn. The positive classroom environment built from peer work can also help ease student anxiety as students come to recognize their classmates as their support system in learning.
4. Formative Assessment and Feedback
Consider your students that have some anxiety about math class. As they are sitting through the lesson, they may not really be sure how they are doing with the work. They aren’t likely to stop and ask for help because of the anxiety they feel. Now they’ve reached the end of the lesson and are about to attempt a Target Task that they have no idea whether or not they’re ready to tackle.
Instead, what if this student had been given low-stakes opportunities to get feedback and assess their understanding throughout the lesson? Now, they feel far less anxiety when it comes time for a post-unit assessment because they have been given feedback during daily, low-stakes opportunities to engage with material.
In Fishtank lessons, you have the flexibility to choose how you want to check for student understanding. The teacher notes available in each lesson offer questions you can use to gauge where students are and ideas for how to support those that may be struggling. You can further ease students’ anxiety by checking for understanding and providing feedback privately. This might look like posing a question to the class and circulating, marking student papers as you move through the room to assess student understanding without requiring an anxious student to raise their hand before they feel confident in their work.
By continually checking for student understanding and providing feedback, students can feel confident that they are on the right track.
5. Framing Summative Assessment
Even those students that absolutely love math can suffer from some level of anxiety during end-of-unit summative assessments. Those students that are anxious on a daily basis in math class are likely going to feel the added weight that a summative assessment can bring.
To help the students in your classroom, you can intentionally frame the summative assessments as opportunities for students to show how much they have learned and grown during the unit. Instead of students feeling like the assessment is a make-or-break moment for how you view them, explicitly remind students that the assessment is just one data point in a long list that helps you understand where they are, and helps them acknowledge their own progress.
To further emphasize a focus on growth, students can use the Pre-Unit and Post-Unit Self Assessments offered in Fishtank Math units to recognize and celebrate how much they have learned. Intentionally framing these self-reflections can also allow your students to focus more on the learning than the letter or number grade.
6. Acknowledging the Anxiety
Finally, and possibly the most useful strategy to support your students with math anxiety, is to openly and honestly acknowledge it. Your students may be adding additional pressure on themselves believing that they are the only ones feeling this way. By having open conversations about the reality of math anxiety, you can show students that they are not alone and that you are there to support them through this.
If you were once an anxious math student, share your own experience. So many of my 6th grade students were shocked to learn that when I was in middle school, I genuinely hated math class! I told them how nervous I used to get and shared that those experiences were what pushed me to want to become a math teacher. I wanted to be able to support any student that felt the way I had. These conversations helped me build meaningful, positive, and supportive relationships with my students and helped them recognize our classroom as a space that acknowledged anxiety, but was not defined by it.
Ready to help ease the anxiety your students might be feeling in math class? Get started with Fishtank Math today to begin helping all students feel comfortable and confident in class. Explore Fishtank Plus for Math to find even more resources to make math as engaging and inviting as possible for your students.
Rachel Fuhrman is the Curriculum Marketing Manager at Fishtank Learning. Before joining Fishtank Learning, Rachel spent 5 years as a Middle School Special Education Math Teacher in New Orleans, LA and Harlem, NY. Outside of the classroom, she has been a frequent contributor to multiple education blogs and focuses primarily on student engagement and instructional practice topics. Rachel earned both her Bachelor of Arts in Economics and her Master of Science in Educational Studies from The Johns Hopkins University.