Teachers 'flip classroom' to cope with math anxiety

November 20, 2012 (CHICAGO)

"I don't know how else to describe it, but it's scary," Allison King said. Just the thought of a major math test can be mentally paralyzing for the 16-year-old, who says she "sometimes" enjoys math.

"I'm wondering how prepared I am - nervous. I don't want to fail. Bad grades scare me," King said.

What King is describing is a bona-fide math anxiety. Researchers who've studied this phenomenon find that it shows up in some students as early as first grade.

"This anxiety at a young age can really have an impact on how these students progress through school and their interest and motivation later in their career," Sian Beilock, Ph.D, University of Chicago psychology professor, said.

Psychologists find that students who are anxious about math are less likely to choose it for a career path. That's not good for a nation trying to encourage students to enter math and science fields.

At the University of Chicago, researchers using brain scans have found that for some people worrying about math can have the same effect as experiencing pain.

"It's almost as if they're registering this anticipation of math as something that's going to be a threat to themselves," Dr. Beilock said.

Some Chicago school districts are trying to alleviate the stress over math.

"I've even seen students with tears in their eyes, 'I don't know how to solve it!'" said Justyna Kalinowska, math teacher, said.

In Kenilworth, teachers are using a technique called Flipped Learning that uses videos to do much of the math instruction. Students watch them at home and use the classroom time to work through the so-called "homework." That can help students with specific problem areas and concepts they may not yet be grasping.

"It takes the worry out. When you're taking the notes, it sinks into your brain," Carter, 8th grade, said.

"I see it as a really good tool for all kids," Olivia, 8th grader, said.

"I think the flipped classroom model really helps alleviate anxiety," Laura Romisher, 8th grade math teacher, said.

Another option to alleviate the anxiety?

"Kind of take a deep breath, say, 'It doesn't really matter,' try to calm down, and try it again," King said.

    Tips for helping kids cope with math from Beilock's book "Choke," which deals with performing under stress:
  • Practice - work through math problems on your own in a simulated test environment.
  • Focus - on something totally unrelated to math to steer your mind away from worry.
  • Meditate - train your brain to recognize negative thoughts and then quickly discard them.
  • Write - about your worries. Beilock says that taking the time to write down your fears prior to a test can help stop anxiety from popping up when you're put to the test.

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