In math, most people assume that there is a “right” and a “wrong” answer, and even a “right” and a “wrong” method. While answers can be objectively quantified, there is some gray area when it comes to the process by which one arrives at the answer. Unfortunately, with the way the current math classroom is structured, feedback often increases math anxiety, both in students and parents. By eliminating (or at least minimizing) grades and test scores, math anxiety can be greatly reduced in both students and parents.
Whenever I’m asked the typical small-talk question, “What do you do?” and respond that I’m a math anxiety specialist, most women (and occasionally some men) respond back with, “I wish you would have been around when I was young!” Although on the surface it might seem like a sweet thing for them to say to me, my heart breaks for these adults. Upon deeper thought, this statement is a reflection of their pain from childhood that they have carried into adulthood. Indeed, I have heard many stories of young women who have wanted to become doctors, scientists, engineers, and even psychologists, but then dropped out because they got overwhelmed by the math requirements.
What happened? More than likely, at some point during their academic careers, they were given the message that they weren’t good at math. In other words, they received negative feedback from parents, teachers, or other adults in their lives, and then internalized that feedback. Most likely, that feedback was based on a grade or test score, or a pattern of several grades and test scores.
As I mention several times in my newly released book, when a student has below-par grades or test scores in math, it is usually not because they can’t or won’t understand the material, but because there are underlying mental and emotional roadblocks. Unfortunately, using grades and test scores as a way to measure progress can make these emotional roadblocks worse. Then it becomes a “Catch-22” of sorts or a self-fulfilling prophecy. In other words, because the student believes they are not good at math, they give up, which causes their anxiety to worsen, and then they freeze up on the test. Then they get another poor grade or test score, and the cycle continues. To make matters worse, many parents and teachers, while well-meaning, can inadvertently contribute to math anxiety by placing too much emphasis on grades and test scores.
Grades and test scores are not always an accurate reflection of a student’s understanding of the material or their ability in math. First and foremost, if the test is not well-designed, then it is not going to accurately measure a student’s understanding. For example, questions can be ambiguously worded or there may be typos. Just as well, many tests do not give partial credit for things that a student does do well as they often focus on the final answer. Lastly, many students don’t do well with timed tests. Although many schools and standardized tests (such as the SAT or ACT) offer extended time as an accommodation for learning disabilities and other special challenges, these requests are not always granted and often require advance planning. For these reasons and more, grades and test scores are not always an accurate form of feedback.
What do we do instead? In my years as a math anxiety specialist, I have found two main things to be helpful: written feedback and parents and teachers who are supportive and work as a team.
In my years of teaching, even when I was required to assign a grade, I would always give detailed written feedback as well. This is because the depth of a student’s learning cannot be captured in one letter or number, or even a series of letters or numbers. At my former job, a colleague who taught English was complaining about grading essays and remarked that I had it “easy” because, in math, there’s a right answer and a wrong answer. Although she was technically right, there are many nuances that go into solving any given math problem. In other words, solving a math problem is a lot like writing an English essay in that it is a process of steps to arrive at a conclusion (or an “answer,” in math). Remember how your math teachers always used to say “show your work”? That’s how we communicate in math and document the process. Once again, it is very similar to the writing process in English.
Unfortunately, the culture of “right” and “wrong” answers (and even “right” and “wrong” methods) in math discourages risk-taking and creative problem-solving. I have worked with many students who were unsure of how to solve a problem and were afraid to even take the first step for fear of being marked “wrong” or losing “points.” By using written feedback instead of grades, we are able to encourage risk-taking and creative problem-solving. After all, standardized tests don’t measure innovation, perseverance, character, or any number of important qualities.
That brings us to the importance of having parents and teachers who understand and support our students. I am often asked why I include parents as part of my process in addressing math anxiety. This is because I have found that while most parents have their children’s best interests at heart, they can sometimes be misguided and make math anxiety worse. The same can be said for some teachers, counsellors, and therapists. In other words, many parents and teachers take grades and test scores at face value and do not consider the story behind the grade or test score.
Remember how many adults say to me, “I wish you would have been around when I was young!” because they had painful experiences in math growing up? Turns out, a lot of these adults become parents who don’t want their children to suffer the way they did. Unfortunately, many of these parents believe increased achievement in math leads to decreased suffering. However, it is actually the other way around. In other words, decreasing suffering in math will lead to increasing achievement in math–especially for young women. The first steps to decreasing this suffering are to have understanding and supportive parents and teachers, and to find alternatives to grades and test scores as a form of feedback.
While math is a subject that is traditionally thought of as very logical and devoid of emotions, it can bring up plenty of emotions for both students and parents. Unfortunately, grades and test scores can be a trigger for these painful emotions. However, math anxiety can be easily reduced which can help develop life-long math learners.