Math Anxiety and its Toll on Non-Math Majors


Deposit Photos

A young woman pulls her hair in distress while studying math.

Carlie Olenick

In almost all of the math classes a student takes in school, understanding the purpose and long-term relevance is questioned throughout their experience in learning mathematics, especially for those whose major and future career plans do not require math skills.  

Many students are unmotivated to learn math because of the lack of real-world applications it provides from subjects like algebra and trigonometry and not to mention the complexity of math problem-solving and the difficulty of receiving good grades in a test-based curriculum. These issues cause students to struggle with math anxiety in class, affecting their mental health in both math and non-math related majors along the way.

Whether it is classwork or tests, math anxiety is described as the heightened fear and stress that one has when trying to solve math problems. According to a research by Harvard Business Law, low to high levels of math anxiety affects almost 25% of 4-year college students with 11% of college students needing counseling to try to overcome their math anxiety. 

Math anxiety further affects one’s ability to perform well under the intense pressure of knowing there is a definitive right or wrong answer with math problems. Students in math classes can feel a sense of consistent failure and have increased worry and nerves, even if they understand the material. This is due to the elevated level of anxiety that occurs when taking tests and completing coursework.

For college students in arts-related major programs, it is a tug-of-war relationship with math being a requirement and non-negotiable, and the student knowing it likely will not help them with their careers, fearing an extreme blow to their self-esteem and GPA. When there is zero passion for the subject, it can be challenging to want to learn complex math material and be motivated to receive good grades after performing poorly.

A young student experiences math anxiety with her head against a chalkboard. (Deposit Photos)

A reason that explains math anxiety and its difference from other subjects is the test-based grading policies. Since tests have already been proven to cause student anxiety and pressure, all math classes are accompanied by numerous tests throughout the semester with never any chances for open notes, and there is no negotiating answers like in other classes involving writing and researching because there are indefinite correct answers in math. It often causes non-STEM students to feel hopeless and be trapped in that mentality of questioning math’s purpose and meaning to their future if it is all about tests and grades.

There have been many approaches to reduce math anxiety in students that center around more effective methods of teaching and communication by math instructors, in the hopes of lowering nerves and fears of failure. For example, a program called Math for All suggests that when a student completes a math problem incorrectly, instead of saying it is wrong and it is easy, teachers should encourage the student’s way of thinking and then ease into an alternative solution by offering steps and relating to them that they too experience times struggling with math problems.

Students should seek help if they feel overwhelmed with math anxiety. Communicating with the teacher one-on-one can help the teacher and student to know the issues being experienced and offer math help outside of class. As for non-math related majors, know the class is temporary. Do not struggle alone—ask for help, and try not to think so much about the little interest in the subject that you have by instead forming a positive and hopeful outlook.