Subtract Anxiety, Add Growth: Changing the Way We Think about Math

Magazine Issue
Spring 2020
Male professor teaching a college class.
Blake Peterson, PhD, is helping future math teachers overcome their own anxieties about math. Photo by Lorenzo Hubbert


Derivatives, variables, theorems—these words have been known to strike fear into the hearts of students. That feeling is what some refer to as “math anxiety,” or feelings of tension and stress related to one’s performance in mathematics. 

Blake Peterson, chair of the Math Education Department at Brigham Young University, has noticed something interesting about math anxiety. He has observed that most people who express their discomfort with or question their ability to learn mathematics also report having a growth mindset—a belief that people can increase their intelligence. 

Because of this apparent disconnect, the Math Education Department is striving to help future math teachers understand how to support the growth mindset and reduce math anxiety in students. They are doing this by discussing and encouraging the belief that all students are capable of learning mathematics. 

Throwing Away the Formula

Why do so many learners have such strong negative feelings toward math? Perhaps it is because math has traditionally been taught as something to be memorized. 

The problem with this view is that many people struggle to memorize things that feel like a random set of rules. In Peterson’s mind, “people see and do math differently.” Just as people hold widely diverse political and religious views, people approach school subjects in diverse ways. Not to mention the fact that everyone learns in a different way—be it visually, with music, using emotions, or by employing logic. 

Understanding this means that a shift in math education and thinking is necessary. 

Creating New Variables 

Change starts with teacher mindset. After all, “the teacher is the number-one factor in learning mathematics,” according to Peterson. 

Teachers need to foster the fundamental belief that all students can learn mathematics within themselves, and they need to communicate that to their students. One way they can do this is by having individual and group discussions with their students about the growth mindset. Those with a growth mindset embrace failure as an opportunity to learn. Communication about the issue helps every student see the benefits of trying. 

Peterson acknowledges the difficulty of developing a growth mindset. “Learning math is about taking risks, trying things, and messing up,” he said. It may be hard for students to develop a willingness to make mistakes in order to learn math. 

Future teachers must understand outside challenges their students may face that affect learning. For example, some students may struggle to see themselves as capable because they lack role models in mathematics. Others may struggle to relate to the way content is taught, based on cultural and societal differences. 

Adapting the Equation

To handle these challenges, teachers must change the definition of “being good at math” to include failure. Success in math is not about churning out perfect computation; rather, it requires confidence to try new ideas and a willingness to persist while solving problems. This means that teachers must provide both time in the classroom for students to struggle and the tools they need to push through obstacles. 

Peterson has personal experience with this. His son struggled to memorize the multiplication tables. He was an outstanding problem solver, but he needed teachers who perceived that he needed to understand the “why” behind equations and teachers who would give him the time and understanding he needed to succeed. “It’s not all about speed,” said Peterson. 

Teachers can support their students’ diverse learning styles by providing more individual “think time” in class. Peterson explains that because some students need more time to work through a problem than others, it can be detrimental to place them in groups immediately. Those to whom math comes more easily will quickly dominate such groups. Time to mull over a problem individually first before discussing in groups allows for more successful struggle. 

Changing mindsets in a system as wide as education is a process that will take time. For Peterson and the BYU Math Education Department, the goal is to help the rising generation of teachers, who will in turn help students. All those involved— teachers, parents, and students—can start now to challenge their current perspective about learning mathematics and develop the belief that all students can learn mathematics. 

Writer: Hannah Mortenson 

McKay Today Article Index
2