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Focus On Basics

Volume 1, Issue A :: February 1997

Applying Research on the Last Frontier

Kathy Bond puts research on math anxiety into practice in Fairbanks, Alaska.

by Karen Backlund with Kathy Bond
Adult Learning Programs of Alaska has a strong commitment to seeking out and applying research to its instructional work with adult basic education students. We obtain research information by attending workshops, reading research journals such as Adult Education Quarterly and the Journal of Research in Mathematics Education, and exchanging ideas with other practitioners. We tap into world-wide resources by using the Adult Numeracy Practitioners Network on the World Wide Web. The hallmark of our application of research to practice is the Math Anxiety class created and taught by one of our instructors, Kathy Bond. She tells her story here.

"My name is Kathy Bond. When this story began, I had been teaching math for Adult Learning Programs of Alaska for a couple years and, though I had little formal training in mathematics instruction, I had a good grasp of the subject matter. My students' math levels ranged from fractions, decimals, and percents to precollege algebra and geometry. My students themselves were diverse: men, women, ages 16 - 60, representing a variety of ethnic and language groups. To make sure I accommodated a range of learning style preferences, I used a variety of methods, my repertoire of techniques and approaches expanding with experience. I showed students the relationship between different aspects of mathematics: for example, how fractions, decimals, and percents are different expressions for the same thing. I demonstrated how mathematics can be applied to real life by teaching about perimeter, area, and volume using a garden plot as the medium. Perimeter is useful when measuring for fencing; knowledge of area is essential when spreading fertilizer; understanding the concept of volume is helpful when ordering top soil. An Alaskan application of the Pythagorean theorem involves calculating how long a ladder you need if you have to climb onto a roof to remove snow. I was reaching most students, but a handful seemed unable to grasp even the most basic concepts I was trying to teach, especially fractions. Despite all my efforts, a mysterious force seemed to be interfering with these individuals ability to retain mathematics instruction.

"About this time, Sheila Tobias, an education analyst with a research group based in Arizona, presented her research findings on math anxiety at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. I attended her workshop and began reading as much I could about math anxiety, including Overcoming Math Anxiety by Tobias, and Where Do I Put the Decimal Point? by Elisabeth Ruedy and Sue Nirenberg. The key findings on math anxiety are that, because of earlier negative experiences, some students develop emotional fears that block their ability to do math. I began to think that perhaps math anxiety was what was impeding learning for the students I could not reach with my usual instructional techniques. I decided to try to de-mystify math to help people cope with math anxiety. Then, I hoped, they could move on to learn the concepts.

New Course

"In addition to incorporating some math anxiety concepts into my more advanced math courses, I developed a new course, Building Confidence in Math, which typically lasts for eight to ten weeks, meeting once a week for two hours. Drawing upon Tobias's work, I spend the first few sessions reviewing the psychological aspects of math anxiety and how to deal with them. Via a math autobiography, I invite my students to recall their negative experiences and relate them to what was happening developmentally in their lives at the time. I point out that, as children, they were not in control of their learning situations. I encourage them to acknowledge what was and to let go as much as possible, reminding them that they can now take control of their lives and learning. They have the right to be treated well and to advocate for their needs. These, along with the belief that one can ask for what one needs and give oneself credit for what one knows, are all tenets of a "Math Bill of Rights" created by Sandra Davis of the University of Minnesota. Finally, I remind students that they don't need to like math to do it. They may not completely overcome anxiety, but they can learn to compensate and successfully work with math despite it.

"Since students with math anxiety often feel isolated, as if they are the only ones who can't do math, one strategy I employ is group work. I also present different approaches to solving math problems and encourage students to offer their own insights as well. I remind students that it is appropriate to use their senses and intuition when working with math. I interject humor into the class sessions, use hands-on activities and games to illustrate my points, and, in so doing, desensitize my students to their fears. I even include math etiquette and trivia in the course. An example of math trivia is that there are lots of things you think you need to know to do math, such as what the terms dividend and quotient mean, but the truth is, you can do math without ever knowing these definitions. By studying math anxiety research, in addition to increasing my array of math teaching techniques, I gained a theoretical framework from which to work.

"Of course, the courses have not all gone smoothly. Sometimes we have had difficulty recruiting enough students to make a class. Creating a safe and trusting learning environment, which is critical to fostering consistent attendance and resultant group cohesion, has taken some time. Retention has increased steadily and exceeds that of many other classes in our program. Using information I gather from my students math journals, I adjust on a daily basis; I use other forms of classroom and course evaluation to inform future classes and courses.

Kathy's studies and class have increased all the ALPA instructors awareness of how anxiety and fear can have an impact on learning, whether it's fear of testing, math, writing, or computers. We are also more cognizant of the role that confidence and esteem play in learning. When we learn something by reading research, or by trial and error, we share it with each other and find ways to adapt what we have learned to our classrooms.


Elisabeth Ruedy and Sue Nirenberg, Where Do I Put the Decimal Point? How to Conquer Math Anxiety and Let Numbers Work for You, (New York: Avon Books, 1992).

Shelia Tobias. Overcoming Math Anxiety, (New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1993).

The Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, 1906 Association Drive, Reston, VA 20191-1593.

Updated 7/27/07 :: Copyright © 2005 NCSALL