Stigma, ineffective instruction at the root of Lasallians’ math anxiety

Math anxiety is born from a messy combination of terrible circumstances, including poor teaching strategies, preconceived biases, and the fear of failure.

When Andrea* (II, CS-ST) entered high school, she began to believe something was wrong with her. Her math skills were not on par with her peers, simple arithmetic word problems elicited panic, and she was hesitant to ask questions out of fear of being called “dumb.” For many other students, these feelings of math-induced anxiety may sound familiar.

Over the years, psychologists and educators have started taking notice of this phenomenon known as math anxiety. Individuals ranging from elementary students to professional adults have reported experiencing some level of math anxiety, citing intense nervousness and disgust when dealing with the subject. Some even exhibit fight-or-flight responses, such as increased pulse rates and perspiration. With mathematical competencies being a crucial aspect of everyday life, the impact math anxiety has on people can lead to detrimental effects, even outside of the classroom.

The antecedent roots

In understanding math anxiety and its effects, it is important to consider both the internal and external environmental influences that contribute to the phenomenon. Daphne Go, the president of DLSU’s Peer Tutors Society, draws from her experience as a tutor and a student and attributes math anxiety to the negative stigmas that have been passed down from peers and older cohorts. 

Perhaps one of the most pervasive myths about mathematics is that the subject is only for geniuses. To find success in it, the student must already possess some natural aptitude for numbers. However, Dr. Daryl Granario, an associate professor from the Department of Mathematics and Statistics and a Math in the Modern World lecturer, says otherwise: “I know a lot of good mathematicians who started as average students before they worked their way [to become better].”

Anxiety is a barrier to learning mathematics. Once a student falls behind in class, it can be difficult for them to catch up.

While mental disorders like autism and Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can affect people’s ability to pick up math, cultural values also dictate attitudes toward the subject matter. Contrary to popular belief, students from Asian countries are less confident in their mathematical abilities than their Western European counterparts. This mismatch between Asian students’ training and self-perception likely stems from the high standards and pressure imposed on them by their parents.

Intrapersonal variables

Dr. Kathleen Aviso, the dean of the Gokongwei College of Engineering, emphasizes the role of the individual in beating math anxiety as an educator, asserting, “We also need to change the mindset of thinking, ‘yun nga mahirap siya,’ when in fact, hindi naman. The fact that other people can understand it…cope with it, means that it is not impossible.” In other words, it is a matter of perception for those who aspire to excel in mathematics or any subject.

(We also need to change the mindset of thinking, “this is hard,” when in fact, it’s really not.)

Despite this, many students still experience some form of academic anxiety. While they often major in courses related to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), Go has also observed this issue in her tutees from the College of Liberal Arts. Yet not all of them believe that they are intrinsically incapable of understanding other disciplines. Take music as an example. When a student learns to play an instrument, they do not expect themselves to replicate a piece by Beethoven in their first attempt. But in a math class, many students quickly decide that they are simply terrible at the subject. 

Studies show that this negative self-concept can contribute to math anxiety. As Aries Vince Picaña (IV, BS-ME), a long-time math tutor, mentions, “Math anxiety definitely does play a big part in underperforming students [because] as soon as you fear the subject [and] as soon as you feel like you’re not even able to touch the fundamentals, then you will also not perform well.” Because math is a gateway to nearly every field of science, this early stamp can also squeeze students out of the STEM pipeline.

Learning in a vacuum

Although the exact number of Filipinos with math anxiety is not known, it is clear that the country is not particularly numbers-savvy. In the 2018 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), the Philippines was the second lowest in math among 79 participating nations. In 2022, the country climbed the rankings—but only barely, becoming sixth to the last in math. 

This abysmal performance shows that it is not only a few individuals who struggle with math; it is a widespread problem resulting from various external factors, including the education system itself. When mathematics is taught well, it helps students understand the boundaries of logical pathways by way of trial and error. Unfortunately, this is not the case for many. 

According to Go, some professors expect students to grasp the subject quickly, but they sometimes fail to show why certain formulas and theorems work the way that they do. This teaching style often results in students staring blankly at the blackboard while symbols pass them by. Consequently, “when the formula is extended to a more complex topic, they fail to understand the connection,” Go explains.

Whether math comes naturally or requires concerted effort, many students struggle to see its value. Other subjects have obvious applications: science explains the physical world, history prevents mistakes from being repeated, and art captures the human condition. But math seems like a black box. With the exception of day-to-day computations like budgeting and telling time, several students do not see the point of advanced mathematical concepts.

Picaña cites the Pythagorean theorem as an example. Despite its importance in fields like architecture and construction, it is typically introduced as another equation that the students need to memorize. “People just state the [Pythagorean theorem]…as A squared plus B squared equals C squared that has no meaning,” he says.

Arbitrary constraints

Further exacerbating the issue is the academic calendar. When Go used to flunk her math courses, she spent three months reviewing her lessons and attending training programs to master the subject. Finding time for these is an uphill battle for many students under the University’s trimester system, especially if their K-12 mathematics was poorly taught. “If those kinds of concepts—the fundamental concepts—were already instilled and properly paced, then maybe it wouldn’t be as hard in a fast-paced environment like university,” Go states.

There are also flaws in how people define success in mathematics education. Assessments like timed exams usually measure the student’s speed and precision when solving a problem rather than their comprehension. While these qualities are important, these assessments may also trigger a student’s nerves, which could shut down their memory and make it all but impossible to think, reinforcing the myth that someone is simply not a math person.

For professors, the size of the classes can be another hurdle to teaching math. “We have to cater to hundreds of students per faculty member,” conveys Granario. This affects their workload and can, in turn, impact the quality of their instruction. It may also prevent them from giving more individualized attention, especially to struggling students. “It’s really hard to know what your students are feeling…because yun nga, on the part of the teacher, your attention is divided by a hundred or more.”

Deriving the solution

When students believe they have fallen behind in the subject, it can be difficult for them to catch up with their peers. To address this problem and the anxiety it induces, Picaña recommends to instructors “making math more approachable” by gradually moving away from simple rote-learning. Instead of handing out problem sets, he suggests using real objects, pictures, and videos to teach math as one would in basic education.

Drawing from her experience as a tutor, Go advises professors to divide the class into small groups when working on math exercises. This will help the professor spot weaknesses and intervene swiftly if a student needs help instead of waiting for them to get stuck on a problem and calling for attention.

For Andrea, the best way to curb math anxiety is to embrace failure. By changing her mindset, she now understands that an incorrect answer does not indicate a lack of intelligence. It simply means that she has yet to cultivate the skills needed to tackle a particular problem. She argues that mistakes need to be recognized for what they are: opportunities for learning and self-growth. “When those test papers come back with a lot of red, I learned the art of being comfortable with it and looking forward to knowing what I did wrong.” 

This new mindset allows Andrea to manage her math anxiety until it no longer interferes with her daily life and hinders her academic achievement. She also hopes that people with similar problems can confront their fear of numbers because math is not only an essential subject but also “something that is so beautiful to learn.”

*Names with asterisks (*) are pseudonyms

This article was published in The LaSallian‘s March 2024 issue. To read more, visit

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