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Mark H. Ashcraft defines math anxiety as “a feeling of tension, apprehension, or fear that interferes with math performance.” Many students today feel some degree of math anxiety. It is a common occurrence in the classroom, but what has led to such negative feeling surrounding math?


Math anxiety is developed in many ways, but the most common causes are from the pressure of timed tests, a fear of embarrassment in front of peers, and the overall class structure. Times tests cause extreme anxiety based on a student’s skill level and their test taking skills. Students who are not excellent mathematicians and are not great test takers create a perfect storm of anxiety within themselves. The anxiety is caused by having to quickly and efficiently move through tests.

Another factor in math anxiety is the fear of embarrassment, especially in front of peers. No one enjoys being embarrassed, but high school and middle school students are especially susceptible to this type of anxiety. Students who are not strong in mathematics are going to have a hard time being engaged in class due to the fear of being wrong and furthermore embarrassed in front of their fellow classmates.

Class Structure also plays into math anxiety. If students do not feel they have a high level of success or that the teacher tolerates wrong answers, then they will never feel comfortable. In order the change math anxiety, we need to look at classroom culture.

Cycle of Failure

Math anxiety leads to a self fulfilling prophecy or “cycle of failure.” Essentially, students who have not done well with math in the past begin a cycle that continues their anxiety. The cycle include the following recurring situations:

  • Negative experience with math
  • Avoiding Math
  • Poor Preparation
  • Poor Math Performance

This cycle can continue to repeat until the particular student or teacher intervenes. Unfortunately for many students, this does not happen.


Math anxiety has many symptoms that teachers may be able to pick up on and offer solutions to the problem. Some of the most common symptoms of math anxiety are:

  • Decrease in self-confidence
  • Negative self talk
  • Student thinking they are the only one to feel this way

If you begin to notice any of these symptoms, or a general hesitation towards math, open a dialogue with that particular student. As an educator, it is your job to curb math anxiety and make math interesting for each student.

How to Cope

Math anxiety is not an incurable issue. With the proper care and attention, math anxiety can be remedied. Working towards math free of anxiety begins with preparation. Students need to be adequately prepared for lessons and tests to even begin to combat the anxiety they have become so accustomed to.

Additionally, when preparing, student need to understand the concepts and not just memorize answers. Mathematics is an application based subject and regurgitating formulas will not do the trick. Students need to understand why formulas work and how the lessons are applied to direct situations.

Working in groups is also a great way for students to begin to overcome math anxiety. Students who are paired with others who have a stronger understanding of the subject can make for a great experience. The student suffering from math anxiety may actually feel more comfortable asking questions in a small group than in front of the class or approaching the teacher.

In order to make math palatable for students, we as educators need to come up with new innovative ways to get these students engaged and out of the cycle of failure. All students can succeed with the proper attention and care.