There is more than one way to solve a problem
Imagine a bridge (any kind you want) linking memory within your brain to the math test on your school desk. Under that bridge lives a troll named Andy. As soon as that ugly troll puts even just one gnarled, hairy finger on the bridge surface, boom, memory freezes and you are toast. Andy is anxiety.
Math is intimidating. Especially if it is timed or competitive. Once anxiety sets in, neuropsychology researchers say access to working memory is jeopardized.
Dr. Steven Feifer, professor and researcher at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., suggests having multiple routes (tunnel perhaps?) to math problem solving. “Students who are can use either verbal or visual/spatial strategies when solving math problems are less likely to become anxious compared to those who have only been taught one way to solve the problem,” he said Friday speaking at the annual Temple University Education and School Psychology Program conference. Less likely is the optimum phrase because Anxious Andy has a way of cutting off our cognitive flexibility to use alternate problem solving strategies.
Classroom teachers can help reduce anxiety by not only providing a mix of verbal and visual methodologies, but also helping students obtain math fluency and confidence without classroom competitions. Skill drills that use speed and competition create anxiety that can block learning and retention and create pressure to perform.
Another way to ward of anxiety is to become so passionate about a math problem, you don’t even notice the troll. Students who are taught to attach personal meaning to the harshness of cold problem solving have easier times during testing because memory is emotionally based, Dr. Feifer explained. Consider using baseball batting averages, cooking recipes, following a stock, and using math to solve real world problems to help students learn math in context which is the brain’s preferred mode needing almost no bridge at all.
Mnemonics and easy-to-learn rules are key as well, such as when multiplying by 9 the digits of the answers always add up to nine. For example, 2 x 9 =18 (1 + 8 = 9). Another is when multiplying negative numbers recite “minus times minus is plus, the reason for this we need not discuss.”
Encourage visual cues. Students who take the time and effort to jot down equations on paper as opposed to working out equations in their head, put less stress on working memory systems.
The anxiety and emotional stress might not just stem from the math problem alone. Many students fear they might be called on in class and they aren’t prepared or they didn’t do the homework and are overall not in emotional readiness. All of this affects working memory.
The cognitive machinery of the brain fires up when relaxed and prepared, surely scaring Andy back beneath the bridge.