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Strategies for Overcoming Math Anxiety: Tips from Expert Tutors

Strategies for Overcoming Math Anxiety: Tips from Expert Math Tutors

Math is tough and causes anxiety for many students. We asked our expert math tutors for advice on managing math anxiety. Read through their tips below.

About Our Math Tutors

All three of our math tutors interviewed in this article are experts with years of tutoring experience.

  • Muan is a math and physics tutor. Muan went through SPUSD before entering CSULA at the age of 14, where he earned a B.S. in Physics with a minor in History.
  • Amber is a math, biology, and chemistry tutor. During the day, she is a high school STEM teacher. She received her B.S. and M.S. in Biomedical Engineering from USC.
  • Nathan is a math and computer science tutor. He is a Pasadena local who went to Flintridge Prep before earning a B.S. in Computer Science from Rice University.

What causes math anxiety for students?

The connection between math and emotional stress, along with the resulting anxiety, is understandable. When faced with the challenge of learning math, failure is often seen as a sign of incompetence, which is not the right perspective. Failure is actually a stepping stone to progress. However, when failure leads to negative emotions like lower grades or social embarrassment, our natural response is to avoid further failure. This typically leads to disengagement from learning, which perpetuates a cycle of anxiety and failure. – Muan M.

Many students have a “fixed mindset” when it comes to their skill in math, meaning they believe that math aptitude is an intrinsic talent rather than a skill they build over time. This creates problems for students because it makes them believe that they cannot improve and that there is little reason to try to improve. – Amber H.

Math anxiety has many causes, including negative classroom experiences and poor math performance. Math anxiety can also cause a negative feedback loop in which poor math performances cause worse math anxiety, which can in turn cause worse math performances. – Nathan P.

How can tutoring help students lower their math anxiety?

It’s easy to get discouraged when it feels like our efforts are not yielding the desired results. Without a sense of effective agency and responsibility in our attempts to improve, it becomes difficult to persist in studying or completing homework. If our efforts don’t lead to meaningful outcomes, why bother trying? This is why tutoring is valuable for struggling students. A tutor can offer guidance not only in the subject matter but also in metacognition—the ability to understand and regulate one’s own thinking processes. The role of a tutor goes beyond patching up knowledge gaps. A tutor helps students develop the skills and confidence to effectively handle future failures on their own. Students should be reassured that it’s okay to be inexperienced and that lack of understanding, not inherent ability, is the cause. – Muan M.

Tutoring gives students a judgment-free zone where they can ask questions about math. In a large classroom, many students will not ask questions out of fear of being judged by their peers. With a tutor in a one-to-one setting, this fear of judgment goes away, giving many students the freedom to ask questions and get clarification. – Amber H.

Tutoring gives students a chance to prove their skills in math, which can help to break the math anxiety cycle. Specifically, taking them out of a classroom that might be providing negative experiences and giving them a more personal, nurturing environment can do wonders. Also, the time spent in a one-on-one tutoring session can help immensely their grasp of math concepts, which will help them with any math anxiety. – Nathan P.

How do you personally help students feel more confident and less anxious about math?

There are two types of anxiety to address: high-stakes anxiety (during formal assessments) and low-stakes anxiety (pervasive in the learning process and life in general). High-stakes anxiety can be overcome with time and persistence by reinforcing the student’s self-confidence through tangible achievements in school and effective learning. However, reducing low-stakes anxiety during the learning process itself is also important. As a tutor, I aim to create a supportive environment, making learning enjoyable rather than dreadful. Engaging with anecdotes, incorporating small breaks, and maintaining a positive emotional state despite setbacks all contribute to this. – Muan M.

Admitting that you don’t know something takes a lot of vulnerability! Therefore, I make sure first and foremost that students feel like they are in a safe, non-judgmental environment. That way, they feel free to be vulnerable and ask questions. The first step to building rapport with a student is always to create a safe space for students to express themselves. – Amber H.

I personally help students feel less anxious about math by celebrating little victories in every session and listening to them when they express their feelings. I have always been a very encouraging person and a great listener, and have found that both are great ways to help others overcome their anxieties. – Nathan P.

Aside from tutoring, what can students do for themselves to overcome their anxiety?

Dealing with anxiety can be challenging. Personally, I’ve found that having a support network is immensely helpful in reducing negative emotions, including anxiety. Spending time with family or friends doing enjoyable activities can make a significant difference. Exercise has also been proven to reduce stress and improve mood. – Muan M.

Students can start by phasing out negative self-talk, such as “I’m just bad at math” or “Math is terrible.” These phrases treat math skills as fixed and intrinsic. Instead, students should replace these phrases with things like “I don’t know how to do this yet.” Introducing “yet” to this phrase shifts the focus to improvement and growth. Parents can help too by redirecting negative self-talk when they hear it. – Amber H.

Students can utilize deep breathing techniques such as the box breathing method to calm themselves when they feel their math anxiety taking control. They can also use more traditional therapy to help overcome greater anxiety issues. – Nathan P.

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If your student is struggling with math, there is hope! Tutoring is the most effective way to improve a student’s understanding of math concepts, which helps to ease anxiety surrounding the subject. Learn more or schedule your first session by calling or emailing us today.

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Drew M. Hodis
Drew is Hodis Learning & Music's Founder and President. He has been tutoring and teaching music for more than 10 years. Drew earned his B.A. in Psychology from the University of Southern California and is pursuing a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology at Adelphi University.