Dr. Cotter on Math Anxiety

Math anxiety can be thought of as a learned fear of numbers or anything to do with math. It results in feelings of tension and fear at the sight of numbers or math symbols, causing poor performance in math, especially on tests. Sadly, in the U.S., over 50 percent of people have math anxiety. I once met a person who had such a math phobia that she wouldn’t do Sudoku puzzles because they contained numbers. Never mind that no numbers are ever calculated; in fact, colors have been used to solve the puzzle. 

Math anxiety often causes students difficulties while solving math problems or during testing. Part of their working memory is involved in trying to overcome the anxious feelings instead of being available to work on the problems.

In the U.S. people freely admit they aren’t good in math, but they hide an inability to read. Europeans and Asians disguise a lack of expertise in math as well as reading. They believe anyone can learn math with good instruction and hard work.

A fear of math is linked to lower achievement in math, which often negatively affects a person’s career choices. There are high school graduates who don’t consider studying nursing or engineering because they can’t imagine themselves succeeding in the required math courses. They choose careers based on avoiding math. Majoring in biology is much more common than majoring in chemistry or physics because it requires less math.

According to the United State Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, growth in the number of math-related jobs will greatly outpace overall national job growth in the near future.

Many causes of math anxiety are the consequences of myths about math. These include:

  • Myth: Only certain people have a “math gene,” which they consider to be somewhat hereditary.
    Fact: Our brains have an area designed for math. True dyscalculia is quite rare; it only affects arithmetic, not the other 199 or so other branches of math.
  • Myth: Boys are naturally better at math.
    Fact: Girls often get better grades in math. Even the slight advantage boys have in spatial ability is erased when girls play ball sports or ski.
  • Myth: In real life very little math is ever needed.
    Fact: To understand our natural world from the atom to the cosmos requires mathematics. Business, financial, and medical decisions involve advanced math. It is an essential ingredient of much of our new knowledge.
  • Myth: Having a good memory is extremely important for doing math.
    Fact: Einstein said not to bother memorizing anything you can quickly look up. Jo Boaler, a math professor, said, “I have never committed math facts to memory, although I can quickly produce any math facts, as I have number sense and I have learned good ways to think about number combinations.”
  • Myth: A mathematician solves problems quickly; they don’t need to think.
    Fact: Mathematicians look at math more like a puzzle that takes time to figure out.
  • Myth: A person good in math rarely makes a mistake.
    Fact: Mathematicians frequently take risks that turn out to be faulty, but they persist until they get it right. Girls may need to be encouraged to take risks and trust their intuition.
  • Myth: Learning math is drudgery—something to be gotten out of the way as soon as possible.
    Fact: Mathematics is a gift from the Creator and is meant to be enjoyed.

Another significant source of math anxiety results from the way math is taught. Some problem areas include:

  • Problem: Insisting all children memorize the counting words to 100 before doing any meaningful math. About 20% of children have this difficulty and often fall behind their grade level.
    Solution: Teach the names of quantities to 10, and then teach transparent number naming before the traditional names, such as 3-ten 7 for 37.
  • Problem: Ignoring children’s ability to visualize.
    Solution: Use appropriate manipulatives, grouping quantities in fives as well as tens.
  • Problem: Using flash cards and timed tests.
    Solution: Teach tens’ based strategies that are visualizable for learning facts. Also, use games the children enjoy for practice.
  • Problem: Teaching math like it’s a bunch of rules without any rhyme or reason; such learning makes advanced math much more difficult and applications mystifying.
    Solution: Teach for understanding by asking questions that require the child to think.
  • Problem: Assigning homework that the child cannot do independently. Too often, a person unfamiliar with the lesson tries to help, but does it in a different way confusing the child.
    Solution:  With the exception of games, homework should be done in class.

In a nutshell, math is a vast field of knowledge encompassing much of human activity and needs to be taught in a caring, thoughtful way to enable children to want to learn more. We must be extremely vigilant against transmitting any negative thoughts we may have.

The RightStart™ Mathematics curriculum was written to delight the child. It helps children understand, apply, and enjoy mathematics.



  1. I recently pulled my kindergartener out of an online school because I could already see the anxiety coming out of her from timed tests and other reasons. I chose RightStart Math after reading reviews, research and testimonials. We are on the 4th lesson today and so far she enjoys hearing the “Yellow is the Sun” song. We listen to it at least 4-5x because she enjoys it so much! I’m pretty excited about this curriculum, not only for my daughter, but for myself because after reading this blog post, I can relate to a lot of anxiety and problems surrounding math. I’m so glad I found Right Start Math!!

  2. I was just telling my girls today I wish as a child I had someone to teach me math the way they are taught through right start math method. I am one of those people with math anxiety and I so so happy to be re- learning math with the girls in such a practical, fun, stress – free way. Most of I love that the girls are under it why something is done so they can learn to apply that knowledge to figure out things they don’t know.

  3. This is so sobering, convicting and FREEING. Thank you for presenting the truth.

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