How a St. Louis school is winning the battle against math anxiety

Math anxiety is a crippling condition that begins in early elementary school and rarely disappears
By: | October 21, 2021
Third graders at Marvin Elementary School in St. Louis showed more engagement in math when they began playing free, online games.Third graders at Marvin Elementary School in St. Louis showed more engagement in math when they began playing free, online games.
Dion Johnson

Dion Johnson

Many of us grew up in a school environment where our grasp on a mathematics concept was often judged by who could answer a question first, or how quickly our hands would shoot up when asked for the answer to a set problem.

Our peers who were more confident would happily throw their hands in the air ready to give the answer. However, for a lot of us the battle taking place in our minds was, “should I attempt to answer this and risk getting it wrong in front of everyone, or should I simply let the ‘confident children’ answer like they always do?”

What this quick-fire questioning fails to identify—beyond who is more confident—is which students have a deep understanding of the various math skills needed to calculate the answer. This approach is often very counterproductive, succeeding only in building up a strong sense of ‘math anxiety’ in many children.

In a 2016 interview, Professor Doug Clements explained that rote practice simply does not work for most students as it misunderstands the nature of knowing addition and subtraction facts and other concepts. The ability that we have as adults to “just know” that 6+5=11 is a result of all the mathematical relationships that have formed in our lives.

Getting children to memorize “the basics” robs them of building these relationships which are integral to understanding mathematical concepts. It also posits a false relationship between mathematical intelligence and fact recall—including the idea that having poor fact recall equates to “not being a math person.”

Math anxiety is a crippling condition that begins in early elementary school and rarely disappears. It’s defined as feelings of tension and anxiety that interfere with the manipulation of numbers and the solving of mathematical problems in a wide variety of ordinary life and academic situations (Tobias, S., 1993).

In short, math is seen by many as the dreaded subject. Parents often compound this issue by giving comfort to their child who is doing their math homework, with comments such as “Oh poor you having to do math homework. When I was a child I hated doing that too.”

It’s no wonder—with pop quizzes and grades assigning each child a numerical value—that math has become an unengaging, anxiety-inducing experience for students of every age.

The core of education, of learning something you didn’t know before, or practicing a skill to the point that you can do it in your sleep, should be fun. That’s what I wanted to address with my students—the outcome has been significant.

Maximizing classroom technology

Professor Clements, referenced earlier, was asked about the role of technology in elementary mathematics. His research showed that the use of technology twice a week for 10 minutes during class makes a significant difference to children’s learning if:

  • children are engaged in the mathematics quickly
  • activities do not promote skill- and drill-based learning
  • technology provides great feedback and opportunity to learn
  • mathematics is specifically focused on the children’s needs
  • technology allows lets children to do things that cannot be done easily in class
  • resources are aligned to the curriculum
  • technology is used meaningfully and not as a reward, or for the “fast-finishers”

It’s also important that students are rewarded for small “wins” without penalizing them for getting something wrong; they simply need to be given a chance to try again. By removing their fear of failure we subconsciously encourage them to learn.

Over the past few years, I’ve therefore been employing technology in the form of a freely available online math resource in the classroom called SplashLearn, which I’d heard about from other educators.

All of my students took to the program immediately. I just stood back and watched them engaging with the math games and reaching over their desks to help one another with the interactive games.

They were excited about learning and being able to help one another. After a year of virtual classes, seeing the students learning together is a sight to see.

Any online math resource must track each child’s level of development. If they get a question wrong, they are given a clue and the next question will then be at a slightly easier level.

If they get two or three questions right, the complexity increases. We all enjoy things that we are good at, and effectively mapping the questions to each child’s level has resulted in them now loving their math learning time.

I can stand back, let them work through the fun challenges at their own pace and be there for those who need extra support.

How competition can help

I have also employed the benefit of competition but, of course, this has to be managed carefully to ensure it adds to each child’s excitement—rather than making them feel a failure. Each year, SplashLearn ends in a national ‘SpringBoard’ competition. The 10-week contest is run in 30,000 classrooms across the US.

The questions are mapped to each individual child’s ability, so they are all competing based on the number of questions answered, not the level of question complexity. My students loved it.

The only issue was that my students were competing at a disadvantage. We are based in a low-income area, and few have access to digital devices at home.

I was watching the Springboard competition leaderboard, seeing other classes getting points overnight and over the weekend. However, this just motivated my students to spend even more time in class playing the fun math-based games.

Incredibly this year, my fifth-grade classroom placed second nationally. Every year the competition offers $20,000 in cash and gifts. For winning second place, we received an $800 gift card for Amazon; money that is going right back into the children’s education. I bought them some math books and also celebrated the children’s triumph with a well-deserved pizza party!

SpringBoard has been the highlight of this challenging year for my class and gave us an opportunity to reinforce the three principles that we hold dear—hard work, dedication and commitment to excellence. It gave us a chance to set, reset, meet and exceed the goals throughout the competition.

Aside from the money, the students’ grasp of math is its own end-of-the-year prize. The kids were able to pick up the material more quickly and with greater retention: I’m sure that every kid has undergone growth.

But what is most important is that they’ve learned to love math!

Dion Johnson is a third-grade teacher at Marvin Elementary School in the Ritenour School District in St. Louis. He has been teaching for 20 years.