by Andrea Pretorian, Guest Contributor
“Math” carries stress and anxiety for many students.
In fact, studies show that anxiety and even avoidance around math and related subjects can start for children as young as five years of age, which unfortunately means there is a huge opportunity for this anxiety to grow over the course of development. This is further reinforced by how education and popular culture may lump people into being either “math people” or not, as though there is some intrinsic mathematical ability that you must be born with in order to enjoy long-term STEM success. How can we show students that they can develop the skills they need in order to thrive in math and science?
STEM anxiety can be particularly self-sabotaging. A recent study out of Chicago showed that the same regions of the brain that are involved in fear of math—primarily in the parietal and frontal lobes—are also implicated in concentration. Its authors describe how the anxiety appears immediately upon encountering the material, giving little chance to control the fear so they can focus on working through the material. Their ability to focus and concentrate is blocked by their own anxiety.
And so, this anxiety paralyzes students before they even have a chance to tackle the math and science concepts. Students may show this anxiety in a number of different ways, ranging from poor performance (poor grades, skipping homework, avoiding lessons, etc.) through panic attacks and insomnia. The challenge actually becomes developing effective coping mechanisms that allow students to focus on the material.
Find alternative ways to approach STEM concepts
Just because a certain subject has been taught in a particular way doesn’t mean different ways of explaining it are not worth exploring. On the contrary; finding new ways to approach concepts can help you pinpoint what sticks with students.
Even something as simple as explaining math problem-solving from a different angle, or coming up with a musical rhyme, or drawing a diagram in a novel way can increase the likelihood of connecting with a student. If one particular learning style is favored in lessons, this can inadvertently ostracize students who learn best using a different one; but when these students struggle to understand the concept being taught, they incorrectly assume it’s because of their own shortcomings.
Anyone providing instruction to a student should be ready to tackle the material using different learning styles; as the student’s preferences become clearer over time, the approach should also be modified.
Reinforce positive self-speak
Students who suffer from STEM anxiety may say things like “I’m bad at math” or “I’m not a math person.” They also may compare themselves to others who do perform well in these subjects, and state that these students are gifted in STEM while implying or stating directly that they are not.
Negative self-talk will neither inspire nor reinforce confidence. Students must believe in themselves and their abilities. If you hear a student talking themselves down, gently approach them about it. Ask them why they think that; based off of what they say, show them that what they believe is based in self-prejudice and not reality. Find a way to kindly and warmly nudge them in future instances of negative self-talk until they break the habit.
Break problems down into more easily digested components
Trying to solve a complex math, physics, computer science, or other STEM problem may seem impossible at first, which can discourage students suffering from STEM anxiety. Showing these students how to break the problem down into smaller, more manageable components can help them not just with the particular problem at hand, but also with an approach they can use on future problems.
Give constructive feedback
Highlight what students have done right so that they know that their approach is not fundamentally flawed. To address what they have done incorrectly, focus on the actionable changes they can make to how they work with these problems. The goal is to build confidence in these high-anxiety students.
Embrace diverse skills and interests
One of the most thrilling parts of STEM is that it can be applied to practically any aspect of life; its wide array of potential applications alone mean that you might be able to rally student interest—or at least comfort—if you find an application that resonates with them.
Combine subjects wherever possible so that students may feel more confident and at-ease. If a student can have fun with a subject, it will be easier for them to feel comfortable and focused. So, if a student is averse to physics but loves music, finding the ways in which physics principles apply to music can help grab the student’s attention and focus long enough that they will start to focus on the material on hand.
Encourage internships and mentorships
Real-world subject exposure as well as the ability to speak to accomplished professionals—and realize that these pros, too, often have struggled with and persisted through STEM anxiety—can both help assuage anxiety. These experiences can also provide students with the opportunity to apply their thinking and skills with both peers and experts in ways that can inspire confidence in their abilities; after all, some students think better in the real-world (or even just a new environment) versus the “classroom,” where the pressure of assessment or previous negative experiences can trigger cycles of anxiety.
Create judgment-free zones for workshopping STEM concepts
The saying goes that there is no such thing as a stupid question, and this attitude must be reinforced for students. A learner must be able to ask whatever questions they have; creating a space permissive to this helps students find their own footing, engaging with material and figuring things out for themselves. From here, confidence may be born.
If you do notice a student consistently taking an erroneous path of reasoning, try to identify why they are thinking like this. You may even ask them directly to walk you through their thought process. Then, try to guide them through realizing their errors and how to correct them; again, this will help inspire confidence and counter any subject anxiety or intimidation that the students may face.
And wherever group learning is possible, use it; perhaps in study groups or other collaborative settings, since many homeschooled students still gain opportunities for collaborative learning. Looking ahead to many college classes, clicker participation is what’s graded – not whether the final answer was actually correct; this sort of framework for contribution and assessment can help guide how you plan collaborative learning exercises. Facilitate group learning as a way to expose students to different ways of thinking, and to let them get out of their own way.
Anxiety around STEM subjects can be a factor contributing to limited participation of different groups in STEM career, and so it is imperative that everyone—from parents through educators—do their part to reinforce a positive learning environment for youth. This fits within a holistic vision of supportive education for students of all backgrounds and allows for all disciplines to be integrated.
About the Author
With an education in biology and computer science and work experience across several start-ups, Andrea's extensive STEM exposure across a range of environments introduced her to the challenges of public education. It also drew her into a career fascination with communication, particularly focused on the resolution of subject fear, intimidation and conflict. One of her key current initiatives is working to expand participation in crypto and blockchain by girls and women alike.