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June 10, 2014

Reducing math anxiety: What can teachers do? (cites Jo Boaler)

Math anxiety can stifle students' enthusiasm to do their best in class. Jo Boaler, a GSE professor in math education asserts that there is a link between math anxiety and timed-tests.

Education Week

We've written about math anxiety on this blog before—how it can be brought on by early negative math experiences and, more recently, its link to genetic factors. Research says math anxiety can lead to a decrease in working memory and that girls taught by a female teacher with high math anxiety are more likely to endorse gender-related stereotypes about math ability. (The same is not true for boys.)

But what does all this mean for the math classroom? What can teachers do to combat math anxiety, whether or not they have it themselves?

Psychology professors Sian L. Beilock of the University of Chicago and Daniel T. Willingham of the University of Virginia have some ideas. Writing in the latest issue of American Educator, a publication by the American Federation of Teachers, they offer recommendations based on their research, including:

  1. Focus math teacher training on pedagogy rather than concepts. "Researchers have found that a course on how to teach math concepts was more effective in addressing math anxiety among pre-service teachers than a course focused directly on the math concepts themselves," write Beilock and Willingham.  
  2. Stop giving timed math tests. "There are likely several reasons why alleviating time pressure makes math anxiety less of a problem, from reducing worries about not finishing in time, to giving students the time and space to work through their answers."
  3. Be careful when consoling students who are struggling. "[S]aying, for example, 'It's OK, not everyone can be good at these types of problems'... sends a subtle message that validates a student's opinion that he's not good at math, and can lower a student's motivations and expectations for future performances," they write. Instead, say to students, "Yes, this work is challenging, but I know that with hard work you can do it!"

The second suggestion—to scrap timed math tests—is much more controversial than it may seem. Remember those timed multiplication tests you took in elementary school—the large grid of problems you had one or two or three minutes to work your way through? Many teachers not only still give those, but consider them a staple of good math instruction. See the mix of comments below this Education Week Commentary piece in which Jo Boaler, a math education professor at Stanford University, similarly called for their elimination.

Jo Boaler is a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education and the CEO and co-founder of Youcubed.

Read an article on Jo Boaler and her new online math courses.

See a video with Jo Boaler on Common Core Math.


Brooke Donald, Director of Communications, Stanford Graduate School of Education: 650-721-402,


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