Expert Advice: How to Increase Math Skills and Decrease Math Anxiety

Math and reading are often treated as top indicators of core competency in students. This is because these subjects are foundational and essential for mastering other material. How can a student read from their history textbook if their comprehension abilities are low? How can a student navigate the periodic table in science class without basic math knowledge?

While no one questions the value of math, it is often considered a challenging subject to teach. Teachers wonder how they can improve math scores and make concepts more accessible.

There is a science to learning — and teaching — math. Here’s what current research shows is trending to help students engage more with this subject.

Start With Fighting Your Own Math Anxiety

Math anxiety occurs when anyone (child or adult) experiences stress or fear about math concepts. Your students can experience math anxiety in the classroom and many of their parents also feel this stress when they try to help their kids. In fact, some parents (and even teachers) can pass math anxiety down to their children or students.

“As teachers, we need to know and understand that math anxiety is definitely a real thing, and that it’s already affecting our students right now,” says Brittany Roberts at Math With Minis. “We also need to recognize that we as educators may even have some math anxiety or math trauma ourselves, and that this might be affecting the quality of our own instruction.”

Before you can help your students face their math anxiety, you may need to check to see if math stress is impacting your teaching experience. Christina Tondevold, a Build Math Minds facilitator, says teachers struggle to teach math concepts they themselves aren’t familiar with. She’s heard teachers say they went into kindergarten so they wouldn’t have to teach math.

“It was only when I became a teacher, and had to teach math, that I began to understand math for myself,” says educational consultant Aidan Severs. “In order to teach it to the children, I had to know what I was talking about.”

If you approach math lessons with dread or confusion — even at a mild level — your students will pick up on it. They won’t believe that math is fun or interesting unless you do.

Young child working on fun math assignment; math anxiety concept

Move Away From Memorization

One way for both you and your students to overcome your math anxiety is to step away from the pass/fail nature of rote memorization. With this concept, students are expected to immediately internalize concepts and repeat them during class or on a test. Memorization without comprehension isn’t a healthy way to learn.

“Rote learning is a minefield,” says Geoff Nixon, founder of Gemm Learning. “Knowledge without understanding soon fades. It’s recognizing context and creating connections that helps knowledge stick.”

In math, rote learning is particularly dangerous, Nixon explains. As soon as a student forgets a fact, they have nothing to fall back on. They lack context and clues to give them the answers they need to solve problems and move forward.

Instead, educators are moving toward teaching math with the goal of building understanding. Students can explore and play with concepts (and ask a million questions) to better grasp different terms and applications.

“One of the best ways to help a student to improve in math or even improve their math skills is to direct their focus toward understanding rather than memorizing,” writes ByteLearn’s John Maloney. “There are a few non-negotiables, such as memorizing the formulas, that aid them in improving math skills. However, you can emphasize conceptual understanding rather than memorizing the rules and properties of mathematical concepts.”

Rote memorization only teaches students to parrot back what you tell them. Students with strong memories might be able to repeat the terms, but that doesn’t mean they actually know when to use them or how valuable they can be.

“The math classroom that prioritizes rote memorization, meaningless algorithms, and speed must become a relic of the past, and those of us who learned in those classrooms must take a deep dive and hone our own conceptual knowledge,” writes Shelby Strong, an educational consultant.

Student working on math assignment; math anxiety concept

Implement Spiral Review

If math teachers are moving away from memorization, what are they replacing the teaching strategy with in their lesson plans? Former teacher Josh Britton, who is CEO of Get More Math, encourages teachers to use “spiral review” as a technique to reinforce math skills. “This entails mixing new concepts and past materials to ensure students retain important concepts and continue growing as learners,” he writes.

One of the most common examples of spiral review is the process of first teaching addition and then fractions. From there, students learn how to add fractions, which spirals back to review a previous concept while applying it to new ideas.

“Math often relies on building one idea on another over time,” writes Jenna De Haven, a research analyst at BJU Press. “A curriculum that doesn’t use this approach to teaching math is likely not laying a proper foundation for deep understanding of a topic.”

Spiral review can also benefit teachers in large classrooms. Students relearn concepts throughout the year as they apply those concepts to new ideas. This serves as reinforcement for some students while potentially helping others grasp a concept for the first time. This way a student who falls behind early on isn’t stuck for the rest of the year.

Spiral review can also help in the fight against math anxiety. “Children revisit concepts more frequently in spiral math courses than in mastery ones,” says Jenny Phillips, founder of The Good and the Beautiful. “They do not get stuck on one concept for a long period and then become discouraged, fatigued, or bored.”

Approach Math as a Language

Another way to bust math anxiety is to fight the myth that there are “numbers people” and “words people.” By approaching math as a language — and language as math — teachers can make concepts more approachable and empower students to use key terms.

Sterre Ropers at De Econometrist makes a case for approaching math as a language. Math comes with vocabulary, grammar rules and syntax that need to be followed to communicate. Math can be used to tell a narrative. It can be used to share information and communicate ideas. These are all elements of language.

The only thing keeping your elementary students from discussing advanced calculus is the use of language, including terms and concepts they haven’t encountered yet.

“Students are not blank slates,” says Twana Young, vice president of curriculum and instruction at MIND Research Institute. “They come to us knowing a lot of math already. They might not know the formal language for describing that math, but they already grasp the underlying concept.”

For example, a student might know that to share a pizza with their friends fairly, they need to cut it into four even pieces. However, they might not have the vocabulary for terms like one quarter, divided by four, or 25 percent.

Consider spending more time reviewing math vocabulary, waiting to introduce complex terms until students are familiar with certain concepts. You can have discussions about sharing pizza with friends before you talk about fractions.

“Students may understand math concepts better with familiar terms, such as ‘and’ instead of ‘plus’, for example,” says Nancy Krasa, co-author of “How Children Learn Math: The Science of Math Learning in Research and Practice.” “Also, math is not separate from reading. Research has shown that children with reading disabilities, particularly dyslexia, are at a great risk for math failure.”

Teacher helping student on laptop in classroom; math anxiety concept

Give Students Visual Cues

Another way to make math more approachable is to use visual cues. Visualization can be a powerful tool before you introduce vocabulary and have students practice math concepts.

“Visualizing math means creating images such as pictures and diagrams to make sense of and communicate mathematical understandings,” says Jennifer Doyle, a BetterLesson instructional coach. “It can help students to create meaning and make connections between topics as well as connect to the real world.”

Marc Husband, Evan Throop Robinson and Matthew Little at St. Francis Xavier University do a great job of highlighting how visual cues can make math more approachable for students who might not have the vocabulary to discuss math problems just yet.

Using a whiteboard and sea creature cutouts to discuss basic algebra, they allow student questions to guide their problem-solving strategies:

  • What does it mean if five seahorses weigh the same as a lobster and a fish?
  • How can you learn the weight of a lobster with this information?
  • How can two math problems help you come to one solution?

“Visualisation and models also give students a safe zone to draw upon their own senses in relation to maths, and offer teachers the chance to gain insights into student understanding,” says Brian De Moss, former director of school partnerships at ORIGO Education. “It is vitally important to have think-aloud maths discussions about how visual models/mental images enhance student number sense in the same way they do for literacy comprehension.”

This is another example of how moving away from rote memorization can help you as a teacher.

A student might tell you that “the hungry alligator wants to eat the four instead of the two” when solving a problem because they don’t know the words for greater than or less than. This tells you what they know and you can see where they are getting lost when approaching a problem.

Kids know math. They do math in their daily lives, from running for a bus to painting in art class. Teachers can help students see how they use math, give them the language to talk about it, and then teach them the skills to apply what they know.

When you take this foundational approach, you can help everyone (including yourself) fight math anxiety and throw rote memorization out the window.

Images by: wckiw/©, 20foto12/©, Greg Rosenke, Centre for Ageing Better