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Helping students overcome math anxiety and recoup learning loss after COVID will be a challenge--but it's not an impossible one

Multiplying the impact of math catch-up


Helping students overcome math anxiety and recoup learning loss after COVID will be a challenge--but it's not an impossible one

Elementary school education is accumulative, building on whatever instruction came during the prior grade. One year you’re learning polynomials, the next how to graph them, while social studies gradually becomes more nuanced and comprehensive. So, what happens when a break occurs in the educational track? Across the nation, despite teachers’ best efforts, students are suffering from the impact of a year of online learning, and it’s crucial to recoup that lost training and engagement before the chance is lost forever.

Unfortunately, for many children, the turbulence and uncertainty of the past 18 months have resulted in a lack of excitement around studying and learning more generally.  Studies point to a condition called “math anxiety” in young students, which hampers their abilities and ultimately discourages them from pursuing STEM subjects and related careers. A short break in a student’s learning can be a disproportionate blow to their education.

It is not only the break from classroom learning that is impacting math anxiety, but also the pressure to catch up that is putting children through more stress.

Studies conducted by the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) suggest that students who suffer from math anxiety and/or phobia have scores that are up to 34 points lower than their counterparts. In real terms, this anxiety translates to one full year of school.

The implications of poor math skills are sadly not confined to childhood though, with a report by Pro Bono Economics finding that adults who lack confidence and capability with numbers are estimated to be less well off than those with good numeracy skills. Andreas Schleicher, Director for Education and Skills at the OECD, argues that “good numeracy is the best protection against unemployment, low wages and poor health.”

So how can teachers help more fearful students overcome their current gap in development and potential math-related anxieties? Most importantly, students have to become comfortable with failure, and accept that they are on a journey that won’t always involve them having the right answer. By tapping into their imagination and creativity, learners will be able to build a more positive attitude towards math. Less formal methods, such as learning through play or game-based exercises, are great steps at reducing pressure on students and allowing them to express themselves more freely.

Curiosity is a fragile thing, and its preservation should be the priority of any learning institution. Companies are emerging with the express goal of making this task–addressing the past year’s disruption–into a fun and engaging experience. Often, new courses address the socio-emotional gap experienced by so many children who haven’t been able to spend time with their friends and classmates.

When it comes to re-engaging young students, a little freedom goes a long way.

Another idea is to use this current situation to get parents more involved in their children’s learning. But with a survey by National Numeracy finding that nearly three in five parents found math the hardest subject to help their children with during school closures due to the pandemic, many moms and dads can find it difficult to know where to start with homework.

The student who is left to find the answers on their own will ultimately come out of the experience well-versed in the priceless skill of self-teaching, not to mention they will be adept at researching online information.

The past year’s events have left students reeling, forced to find their footing in a global pandemic while keeping up with their studies. While nominally this generation has fallen behind in some areas, they will undoubtedly emerge from the pandemic as more worldly, self-sufficient, and resilient individuals.

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