Creating Positive Math Experiences for Learners

A recent article described how anxiety toward math can hinder mathematical progress. As parents and educators, how can we reduce or eliminate math anxiety through creating positive math experiences for learners? We’ve come up with some ideas.

1. Focus on math as a process rather than math as a single answer.
Many students view math as finding a single answer, where getting the right answer is good but getting the wrong answer is bad. When learners feel concerned with finding a single correct answer, they can develop anxiety toward math. In reality, math is a process that requires making conjectures, finding examples or counterexamples, trying new ideas, and collaborating. One way to help learners view math as a process is to ask learners questions such as “how do you know?” or “can you prove that?” rather than immediately confirming whether an answer is correct. Praise learners for their ability to explain their mathematical thinking, even if an answer is incorrect.

2. Ensure learners have material with an appropriate level of challenge.
If material is too difficult for learners, it can cause learners to feel anxious or discouraged. Choose problems with multiple entry points and provide learners with various tools to help solve such as manipulatives, graph paper, or colored pencils. Knowing a learner’s Quantile measure can also help educators choose materials with an appropriate level of challenge.

3. Avoid using math as a punishment.
Many of us have probably had a teacher who assigned extra math problems when the class was misbehaving or a parent who made us do schoolwork when we didn’t complete a chore. When math is used as a punishment, it leads learners to associate negative feelings with doing math rather than feelings of accomplishment, intellectual curiosity, and joy. Find creative ways to use math as a reward instead of a punishment, for example by spending one-on-one time playing a math game with a learner or allowing a learner to use special technology such as a tablet for the purpose of doing math.

4. Remain calm.
Parents and educators may feel anxious themselves about math, and learners can sense this feeling and replicate math anxiety from adults in their lives. If you feel math anxiety as an adult, try to remain calm when working with learners. It may help to review materials on your own first, prior to working with students, to give you a chance to review concepts before explaining those concepts to a learner.

What are some ways you create positive math experiences with learners in your life?

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