1.2 Overcoming maths anxiety

Does the thought of having to do some maths make you feel nervous or anxious? If the answer is yes, you are not alone and most likely you are in the majority. In order to overcome this anxiety, it is important to understand that you were not born with it. There was a time when you didn’t have it. Thinking about what contributes to anxiety and maybe what led to it in the first place can help us overcome it!

As students beginning our primary school education, we typically do not suffer from maths anxiety. In general, as very young students, we enthusiastically embrace learning new things, and early lessons in counting and basic arithmetic are not something we remember as traumatic.

However, the majority of adults report mild to moderate maths anxiety and a significant number of people (about 5% of adults) report severe maths anxiety.[1] It is unclear exactly what the contributing factors are for this increase in anxiety between early childhood and adulthood. However, it seems safe to posit that our anxiety tends to rise as we engage with more difficult content possibly coupled with poor teaching, become exposed to other people’s negative attitudes to maths, or feel pressure to conform to social stereotypes. For example, there is a well-refuted but unfortunately pervasive myth in our society that females are not as good at maths as males. This myth has certainly contributed to the lower representation of females in certain STEM disciplines.[2]

There is a strong negative correlation between maths anxiety and maths competency. This means that the more maths anxiety you have the more difficulty you will have with maths. So how can we overcome this? One way is to go back to the first principles of learning that you used when you were younger and free from maths anxiety.

1. Do what you understand first

Maths is incremental! This is why when we begin learning we start with very basic concepts and build from there. There is no shame in going back to the things you are more comfortable with first if the end goal is to build a base to tackle more challenging concepts later. This will help you build confidence and make it easier for you to visualise yourself succeeding. Try the easier problems first to help build your understanding of the concepts.

2. Understand the concepts

It is important to try to understand the ‘why’ of maths concepts rather than just memorising them. In a stressful situation (for instance an exam!) the first thing you will lose is your short-term memory. This will be a problem if you have only just memorised a set of rules. However, if you have a deeper conceptual understanding of the reason behind the rules you will fare much better. For example, a common problem is that many students are over-reliant on formulas. If you understand determination of molar concentration only as C = n/V, then it is possible you will misremember the equation and get your answers wrong. If you think about molar concentration in terms of the dimensions (C = concentration in moles per litre, n = number of moles and V = volume in L) then it is much more difficult to misremember or make a mistake when rearranging the equation. Understanding the concepts, in this case the units, will help you remember correctly.

A natural corollary to this is that you should be prepared to ask questions in order to understand. Remember always to ask for clear instruction, clear illustrations and examples!

3. Learn to self-check and troubleshoot errors

Learning to check your work is certainly something you would have been encouraged to do when you first began learning maths. There are three broad classes of errors you will make: conceptual errors, careless errors and computational errors. Conceptual errors can be avoided by understanding the concepts (as in the molar concentration example above). Careless errors result from things like copying the problem or a number down incorrectly, misinterpreting your bad handwriting, misreading the instructions, or pressing the wrong button on your calculator. Computational errors mean that a mistake has been made in the process of solving a problem stemming from an incorrect addition, subtraction, multiplication or division.

There are some strategies you can use to either avoid or troubleshoot careless and computational errors. One simple way is to take your time to read the problem carefully and or highlight important information. When solving the problem, carefully write down each step as this makes it harder to make a mistake and easier to check your working. This has the added benefit of that in an exam it will allow the person marking to follow your logic and give you partial credit if you have an incorrect answer but have clearly demonstrated an understanding of the underlying concept.

A lot of the operations you do are reversible so clearly articulating your steps also gives you an opportunity to work backwards to see if you get to the same starting point. Another very good way to troubleshoot errors is to mentally estimate the answer before you begin. This is known as sanity checking and is covered in a later chapter. Most of the time your estimate does not need to be that close for you to realise that you have made a mistake with your calculation. A dropped digit or inverted operation will often result in answers that are orders of magnitude incorrect!

Errors are going to occur, especially when you are initially learning, but in a professional context, they can have serious consequences. For example, a drug dosage calculation that is out by a factor of 10 could be fatal. Good professional practice involves taking steps to minimise error, a very effective way to do this is by writing out calculations and having another trained professional check them.

4. Identify the applications

It is difficult to find the motivation to tackle difficult maths or concepts which have previously vexed you. Your early explorations in maths were helped by obvious links to useful applications like being able to count or use money. It can help greatly to think about the applications for the maths you are learning. This book teaches you maths through a prism of biomedical science and ideally the relevant applications will be apparent to you. Look ahead to where you might need these skills in future study or employment and use this as motivation for persevering!

  1. Hart, S. A., & Ganley, C. M. (2019). The Nature of Math Anxiety in Adults: Prevalence and Correlates. Journal of Numerical Cognition, 5(2), 122-139. https://doi.org/10.5964/jnc.v5i2.195
  2. Wang, L. Mediation Relationships Among Gender, Spatial Ability, Math Anxiety, and Math Achievement. Educ Psychol Rev 32, 1–15 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10648-019-09487-z

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