Problem solving: How to cope with math anxiety

Story by Payton Hinojosa/COMM 2311

You start to sweat.  Your muscles tense. You get lightheaded.

     Those are just some  of the symptoms people might suffer if they have math anxiety according to Medical News Today.  

     What is math anxiety?  The same article from Medical News Today defines it broadly as “worry or fear about solving math problems.”  

     What’s more, approximately 93% of Americans have some level of it.  That’s according to a 2011 study out of Florida.

     Alma Lopez, a professor of mathematics and statistics here at South Plains College, believes everyone has some form of math testing anxiety.

     “I think it has a little less to do with the subject,” she says, “but some subjects are worse for some people, such as math. If you think about it, having math anxiety falls on a spectrum. Some people have it terribly and others, not so much.” 

     Lopez says she has personally dealt with math anxiety.

     “When I got into college, before then it didn’t bother me,” she says. “I just thought to myself ‘oh well, I’ll do ok if I do, and I won’t if I don’t’ but when you get into college for some reason now it counts. You don’t get a redo, you don’t get a second chance to make it up. I think that kind of put pressure on me and that really stressed me out.”

     It appears having math anxiety does not necessarily mean that a student is not good at math.  It might just mean that a student has a fear of not making that A he or she is used to making.  

     That is the case for Maddy Sherril, a first -year freshman at the University of Kentucky. She says she was a straight A student all four years of high school. Now, though, she thinks her math anxiety has gotten worse. 

     “I’ve always been really good at math,” she says. “Although I had math anxiety, I think that once I got to college it got very bad. I definitely started caring more about my grade in math because it’s a little challenging for me, but when I understand what’s going on in class my math anxiety is a little less, because I don’t have to worry as much.”

    Maylin Lozano, a freshman at SPC, who graduated as valedictorian in high school, has a story that sounds similar to Sherril’s. She says she can tell a difference in her test grades when her anxiety is high. 

    “I do know a huge difference in my test scores,” she says, “because I get in my head a lot and start overthinking things. If I start feeling too confident during a test I feel like I’m doing something wrong, because it shouldn’t be that easy. That’s when I start second guessing.” 

   Lopez says from what she sees, one of the hardest things for students dealing with their math anxiety is asking for help.

     “A lot of the time,” she says, “if they approach the instructors they can come up for a plan for them or with them. I always tell students if you don’t like how you did on an exam, come see me, do something different. A lot of the times it might be as simple as working in a group, doing your homework as soon as you get out of class.”

     Sherril says she tries to get better sleep before a test and eat or drink to feel more energized and relaxed. Another thing she says she does to beat the anxiety: study more.

    “I study by using notecards with problems that I find more challenging to solve,” she says. “I will use reviews or handouts given by my professor or really any material that I can find online to help me out, like there’s this one website I like to use to help review.”

     Lozano echoes Sherril when it comes to studying.

     “I just feel like I have to be confident in the amount I studied for my anxiety not to be as severe,” she says. “If I know I studied well, I won’t be as anxious. I feel studying well and enough that helps me deal with test anxiety. Also sleeping helps me, or listening to music. I rewatch my lecture videos and use flash cards. I also rewrite all of my notes on the whiteboard in the science building. I would recommend booking a space in the science building, it has really helped. I also do study guides from the quizzes as well.”

     Lopez, who now teaches math, says trying to relax is what helped her overcome her own anxiety.  

     “When I was in college,” Lopez says, “anytime I had big exams come up I would always get really nervous and so I would almost get sick to my stomach and it would distract me.  So I figured out that If I could go for a run or a swim before I had a big test it calmed me down. One time I walked for an hour before I took a test. I definitely had math anxiety. I often encourage students to find something that relaxes them.”

     Finally, Lopez says, maybe just knowing you’re not alone can help someone overcome that math anxiety. 

     Maybe just knowing a lot of people “have it” will help make the sweating, tension, and lightheadedness go away.

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