Study Skills – Focus on Math Anxiety (Day One Activities)

February 1, 2010 at 11:05 pm 4 comments

At the developmental level it should be no surprise that many of the students have feelings of anxiety related to math. Here are a few of the things I do on the first day of class to help students deal with these feelings.

“Heads Down, Hands Up”

After I take roll on the first day of class, I ask the students to put their heads on their desk with their eyes closed. I then ask students to raise their hands if they feel that they struggle with math or if math is their worst subject. Most students raise their hands, and the students can tell this by all the rustling associated with that many hands being raised. I then ask them to put their hands down and open their eyes.

We talk about how many students feel this way. It’s odd, but so many students feel that they are the only one who struggles with math and that there must be something wrong with them. I tell them about all the hands that went up, and that it’s pretty common to feel that way. I ask them to consider this as their chance to start over, to wipe the slate clean, to develop a positive attitude. Honestly, it does not matter what series of events led to a student being in a developmental class, it’s what happens from there that matters.

Positive outcomes: Students realize they are not alone and that they can start over now.

“A Picture Is Worth 1000 Words”

One fun activity that I enjoy is asking my students to draw a picture of a mathematician. I see lots of pictures of little bodies and big heads, some glasses, some pocket protectors, and some crazy Einstein hair. (I have an ex-colleague that does this activity, and once he had a couple of students draw wizards – mat is so “magical”!) The pictures rarely look like any of the students in the room.

Students feel that anyone who understands math is some sort of super-genius. There is a giant wall in front of them that leaves math inaccessible to them. I explain that any student who is willing to devote the time, effort, and thought to learning mathematics can do it. And I’m here to help them. I tell them that if they want to see what a mathematician looks like then they should check out the mirror when they get home.

Positive outcomes: Students realize that math can be accessible to them.

“Tell Me Your Strengths And Weaknesses”

On Day One I give my students a survey that helps me to understand them a little bit better, as well as showing them that I am interested in my students and their success. Near the end of the survey I ask my students to give me 3 reasons why they will pass this class. Basically I am asking my students to list their strengths because I want them to acknowledge that they have student and/or personality traits that can help them be successful regardless of the arena. Even in math class.

I also prompt my students to finish the following statement “If somehow I do not pass this class, it will most likely be because …” Here I am asking my students to identify what they feel is their greatest weakness as a math student. The thought is that the best way to overcome a weakness is to begin by identifying that weakness. I read over the surveys that night, and on the second day of class I go over coping strategies for overcoming these weaknesses. Students at the developmental level have little experience with developing coping strategies, but once this is modeled for them they are more likely to be able to do this for themselves.

Positive Outcomes: Students realize that they have their own strengths, as well as plans to overcome any perceived shortcomings.


Day one is a great opportunity to break down student misconceptions about math and mathematicians, for students to realize that they are not alone in their struggles, and that there is a path to success if they choose to take it. The activities I have shared are great ways to alleviate some of the anxiety our students feel. Give them a try, and let me know how it goes. If you have any activities of your own, please share them with me by leaving a comment or reaching me through the contact page on my website.



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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Hunter  |  February 2, 2010 at 9:45 am

    And it matters THAT they are there, willing to try again, rather than avoiding — or trying to avoid — basic skills, college, formal education, Math, numbers, school, etc. for the rest of their lives.

  • 2. Hunter  |  February 2, 2010 at 9:49 am

    Wonderful, George! I’m willing to bet that your engaging in these sorts of activities on the first day — rather than jumping directly into a lecture on Math content, or calling roll and reviewing the syllabus then letting them go early — contributes to students’ staying in class and succeeding in it, which in turn contributes to your success as their professor.

  • 3. John  |  February 2, 2010 at 10:46 am

    “I ask the students to put their heads on their desk…” I read that and was very skeptical, but after reading on, it certainly was not what I expected. Great post.

    • 4. georgewoodbury  |  February 3, 2010 at 5:12 pm

      I agree, it sounds like it’s going to go badly. These students are pretty uncomfortable with admitting their deficiencies in front of everyone, so the fact that no one is looking helps.


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