Overcoming math and science anxiety

Overcoming math and
science anxiety
When they open books about math and science, some capable students break out in a
cold sweat. These are symptoms of two conditions sweeping over students across the
world- math and science anxiety.
If you want to improve your math or science skills, you’re in distinguished company.
Albert Einstein felt he needed to learn math to work on his general theory of relativity. So
he asked a friend, mathematician Marcel Grossman, to teach him. It took several years.
You won’t need that long.
Think of the benefits of overcoming math and science anxiety. Many more courses,
majors, jobs, and careers could open up for you. Knowing these subjects can also put at
ease in everyday situations: calculating the tip for a waitperson, planning your finances,
working with a spreadsheet on a computer. Speaking the languages of math and science
can also help you feel at home in a world driven by technology.
Many schools offer courses in overcoming math and science anxiety. It pays to check
them out. The following suggestions can start you on the road to enjoying science and
Notice your pictures about math and science
Sometimes what keeps people from succeeding at math and science is their mental
picture of scientists and mathematicians. Often that picture includes a man dressed in a
faded plaid shirt, baggy pants, and wing-tips shoes. He’s got a calculator on his belt and
six pencils jammed in his shirt pocket. This is the guy who has never heard of the Rolling
Such pictures are far from the truth. Succeeding in math and science won’t turn you
into a nerd. Not only can you enjoy school more, you’ll find that your friends and family
will still like you.
Our mental pictures about math and science can be funny. At the same time they have
serious effects. For many years, science and math were viewed as fields for white males.
That excluded women and people of color. Promoting success in these subjects for all
students is a key step in overcoming racism and sexism.
Look out for shaky assumptions
People often make faulty assumptions about how math and science are learned.
They included:
 Math calls only for logic, not imagination
 If you can’t explain how you got the answer you’ve failed
 There’s only one right way to do a science experiment or solve a math problem
 If you don’t have a good memory, forget about science
 There is a magic secret to doing well in math or science
These ideas can be easily refuted. To begin, mathematicians and scientists regularly
talk about the importance of creativity and imagination in their work. At times they find it
hard to explain how they arrive at a particular hypothesis or conclusion. Few of them
boast about exceptional memories. And as far as we know, the only secret they count on
is hard work.
Get your self-talk out in the open and change it
When students fear math and science, they often say negative things to themselves
about their abilities in these subjects. Many times this self-talk includes statement such
 I’ll never be fast enough at solving math problems
 I’m one of those people who can’t function in a science lab
 I know this law of motion is really simple and I’m just too dumb to get it
 I’m good with words, so I can’t be good with numbers
Faced with this kind of self-talk, you can take three steps.
1. Get a clear picture of such statements. When they come up, speak them out loud or
write them down. When you get the little voice out in the open, it’s easier to refute it.
2. Next, do some critical thinking about these statements. Look for the hidden
assumptions they contain. Separate what’s accurate about them from what’s false.
Negative self-statements are usually base on scant evidence. They can often be
reduced to two simple ideas: “Everybody else is better at math and science than I am”
and “Since I don’t understand it right now, I’ll never understand it.” Both of these are
illogical. Many people lack confidence in their math and science skills. To verify this,
just ask other students.
Remember that understanding in math and science comes in small steps over time.
These subjects are cumulative-that is, each new concept builds upon previously learned
concepts. Learning or reviewing those concepts promotes understanding.
3. Start some new self-talk. Use statements that affirm your ability to succeed in math
and science:
 When learning about math or science, proceed with patience and confidence
 Any confusion I feel now will be resolved
 I learn math and science without comparing myself to others
 I ask whatever questions are needed to aid my understanding
 I am fundamentally OK as a person, even if I make errors in math and science
Notice your body sensations
Math and science anxiety are seldom just a “head trip.” They register in our bodies
too. Examples are a tight feeling in the chest, sweaty palms, drowsiness, or a mild
Let those sensations come to the surface. Instead of repressing them, open up to them.
Doing so often decreases their urgency.
Next, learn and practice relaxation techniques. Many books, tapes, and courses exit on
this subject.
Make your text an A priority
In a history, English, or economics class, the teacher may refer to some of the required
reading only in passing. In contrast, math and science courses are often text-driven. That
is, class activities follow the format of the book closely. This makes it doubly important
to master your reading assignments. It’s crucial to master one concept before going to the
next and to stay current with your reading.
Read slowly when appropriate
It’s ineffective to breeze through a math or science book as you would a newspaper.
To get the most out of you text, be willing to read each sentence slowly and reread it as
needed. A single paragraph may merit 15 or 20 minutes of sustained attention.
Read chapters and sections in order, as they’re laid out in the text. To strengthen your
understanding of the main ideas, study all tables, charts, graphs, case studies and sample
problems. From time to time, stop. Close your book and mentally reconstruct the steps of
an experiment or a mathematical proof.
Read actively
Science is not only a body of knowledge, it is an activity. To get the most out of your
math and science texts, read with paper and pencil in hand. Work out examples and copy
diagrams, formulas, or equations.
You can also go beyond the text. Invent activities as you read. Construct additional
problems similar to those in the book. Devise your own experiment to test the truth of a
hypothesis. Relate your current reading to other math and science courses you’ve taken.
Create your own charts and tables.
Consider keeping a running record of you insights and questions, much like a journal.
When reading your textbook or taking notes in class, use a two-page format. Summarize
the reading or lecture on the right hand page. Record your guess, hunches, false starts,
questions, and errors on the left. List what you don’t know yet and how you intend to find
it out.
Learn from specific to general
A powerful way to learn many subjects is to get an overview of the main topics before
you focus on details. You may want to us the opposite strategy when studying math and
science. Learning these subjects often means comprehending one limited concept before
going on to the next one. Through this kind of work, you gradually get the big picture.
Jumping to general conclusions too soon might be confusing or inaccurate.
Be gentle with yourself
Learning science and math is like mastering any other skill. Some days your work can
flow without effort and you’ll feel like a candidate for the next Nobel prize. On other
days, you may stumble like a baby first learning to walk. That’s normal.
Don’t be surprised if you feel you’re going backward once in awhile-as if something
you used to understand so well seems like gibberish now. This can result from the way
math and science concepts are presented: the rules and general principles often come
first, followed by the exceptions and conflicting evidence.
Think critically
Science and math texts are not eternal truth. You’re free to ask questions or disagree
with the author. If you do so, state your question precisely and base your disagreement on
Remind yourself of the big picture
Pause occasionally to get the big picture of the branch of science or math you’re
studying. What’s it all about? What basic problems is the discipline trying to solve? How
is this knowledge applied in daily life?
For example, much of calculus has to do with finding the areas of “funny shapes”—
shapes other than circles that have curves. Physics and calculus are used by many people,
including architects, engineers, and space scientists.
Ask questions fearlessly
In any subject, learning comes when we ask questions. And there are no dumb
questions. To master math and science, ask whatever questions will aid your
understanding. Students come to higher education with widely varying backgrounds in
these subjects. What you need to ask may not be the same as the other people in your
class. Go ahead and ask.
One barrier to asking questions is the thought, “Will the teacher think I’m stupid or illprepared if I ask this? What if she laughs or rolls his eyes?” With competent instructors,
this will not happen. If it does, remember your reasons for going to school. The purpose
is not to impress the teacher but to learn. And sometimes learning means admitting
Use lab sessions to your advantage
Laboratory work is crucial to many science classes. To get the most out of these
sessions, prepare. Know in advance what procedures you’ll be doing and what materials
you’ll need. If possible, visit the lab before your assigned time and get to know the
territory. Find out where materials are stored and where to dispose of chemicals or
specimens. Bring your lab notebook and workshops to record and summarize your
If you’re collecting data during an experiment, keep in mind that there’s no such thing
as a perfect measurement. Two people following the same instructions may come up with
different results. When you chart or graph your results, your data points may not follow a
straight line or smooth curve. Mathematical formulas are precise, while our
measurements are approximations.
If you’re not planning to become a scientist, the main point is to understand the
process of science how science observe, collect data, and arrive at conclusions. This is
more important than the result of any one experiment.