Math Anxiety – How to Empathize with Students

Have you ever experienced performance anxiety?

If you don’t have math anxiety, remembering (or freshly experiencing) performance anxiety is a great way to understand what it’s about.

This happened to me at the beginning of this semester.

Anxious Wrinkled ForeheadI try to memorize the names of all my students. I go through the roll and for each person, I say the name and then look at the student. I study where they are, who they are and their name. I say it a few times and try to get it solid in my memory.

Doing this helps students with math anxiety relax a little. And students who are trying to stay in the shadows (so they can miss class, etc.) learn quickly that I’m going to connect with them, personally.

Of course the act of memorizing names isn’t perfect. The second day of class I usually remember about 30% of the names. So I go through and try to match the names on the roll with different people – giving it my best shot.

I often get it wrong.

A few weeks ago, I mistakenly called one woman, “Sandra.” I was wrong. She said, “Awe, come on, now!”

It was all in jest, I had no doubt. But the strong reaction to my mistake hit me. So when I was looking through the roll to find her correct name, I was nervous.

I was experiencing performance anxiety.

Anxiety Books
by jronaldlee | | CC BY

If I gave it a shot and chose the right name, I would look good. But if I picked incorrectly, I would likely get another round of jeers.

Of course, I’m the instructor, so there isn’t that much risk. But there certainly was performance anxiety.

Surprisingly, there was a lot of anxiety.

I pointed this out to the students.

Because the class is less of a content based course and more of a confidence building/math anxiety busting experience, I thought pointing this out might be enlightening.

We talked about how they might have said things like, “That’s a good try, Bon. Unfortunately, Sandra’s not my name. Would you like to give it another try?”

We talked about how that kind of encouragement compares with the “Awe, come on, now!” reaction that they gave before.

And we talked about the parallels of those statements to the statements by math instructors to students – about math. And the parallel of my performance anxiety to the math anxiety many experience.

Consider it yourself.

The next time you try something and get it wrong, notice how you feel. Think about how your child might feel in a similar situation.

And ponder how this feeling would manifest itself as math anxiety if this performance anxiety happens in a math class.

Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments. And tell others about it…

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