Overcoming your fear of math tests

By Murray Bourne, 26 Apr 2009

Sofia - Math Test #1

Sofia's heart skipped a beat when her teacher reminded the class about tomorrow's math test. She didn't know there was a test tomorrow — how could she study for it when she has to work at her part-time job that evening?

She could feel her palms becoming sweaty just at the thought of it. She didn't even know what was going to be covered in the test. "Oh well", she thought. "I won't have time to study so I'll just have to see how I go."

Sofia went off to lunch (burger with fries) and tried to concentrate on the afternoon's lessons, but found it tough. After school she rushed over to her job and put in 5 busy hours of work. Every now and then she would think about the math test and then went back to concentrating on work. It was too painful to even think about it.

She came home from work at around 10:00 PM, hungry and tired. After grabbing a quick sandwich, she figured she better try to get a handle on some of the math in that test tomorrow. She MSN'ed her friend and got the topics for the test. She tried to read over her lesson notes but found too many gaps where she'd been distracted by her friends. The text book didn't help — it was not well explained and there were not enough examples in there to follow.

She looked over the homework assignments that she'd submitted. Several of the questions had no answer at all, because she couldn't figure it out and had just given up. She tried to email her friends about the missing answers but no one answered since it was getting late.

It was approaching 2:00 AM and Sofia was totally beat. She went to bed and had a fitful sleep. She never sleeps well these days and wonders whether it is because she never finds time to exercise.

The alarm went off at 7:00. Sofia dragged herself out of bed and got ready. She tried reading her textbook while rushing through her usual breakfast of sausages and eggs.

At school, Sofia's friends were going over the formulas in the test and Sofia just felt sick. Many of the things they were talking about made no sense. She just knew this was going to be a disaster. Oh well, she'd failed before and it looks like she's going to fail again. Her anxiety was really high by now and she could feel her heart racing.

The supervisor handed out the test and it was all Sofia could do to hold back a sob. The first few questions looked OK but she didn't recognize anything in the final questions, the ones with the highest marks.

She got started on the test but was not at all sure if she was using the correct formulas for each question. By the time she got up to the final questions, it had all become a blur. She was so stressed, she could hardly think straight.

Sofia handed up her paper and left the exam room as early as she could. What a nightmare.

The stress over math tests was killing her. Sofia decided she would have to do something different next time and went off to the only math teacher she could really talk to — Mrs Browning.

Mrs Browning was surprisingly blunt. She pointed out to Sofia that much of her stress was self-induced.

Sofia decided to try Mrs Browning's advice for the next test.

Sofia - Math Test #2

This time when her math teacher reminded the class of the test the next day, it was no surprise to Sofia. She'd written it into her study diary as soon as the test was announced. The online class schedule had an overview of the topics, so she could see when it was and what she needed to learn.

She always knew that teachers give hints when a test is coming up but she'd been ignoring them. This time she made a note whenever her math teacher mentioned if anything was "important" or he said "you may need to know this soon".

The night before each math lesson she found some time to read ahead in her math text book. She didn't always understand what she was reading, but it gave her some idea of the main concepts and how the examples worked. She also knew what the graphs and diagrams looked like. She was surprised to find the next day's lesson made a whole lot more sense, and she was more relaxed when the teacher presented new material.

She tried hard after each math lesson to go home and work on the homework problems. She'd learned from Mrs Browning that all of us have memories like a sieve and that if you don't work on something new within 24 hours, much of it is lost. Sofia didn't always get everything correct, but she understood her mistakes because she spent time fixing up the errors. She still didn't like the text book that they used in class, so she borrowed a few math text books from the library. She found that each text book gave a different viewpoint and filled in a few of the gaps so it all made a lot more sense.

Sofia's biggest sacrifice was cutting down on her part-time work. She only worked on weekends, leaving more time during the week for study. While she wouldn't have as much cash, she figured a drop in stress was worth it.

Her old habits of cramming just before the test also changed. She spread out her study time during the week leading up to the test.

She had also decided to improve her diet. She ate a lot more fruit and a lot less oily food.

The morning of the test she got up a bit earlier than usual and read over the few theorems and formulas that she was not sure about. After a quick run around the block, she showered, had a breakfast of cereal and fruit, and headed off for school.

Sofia avoided talking with her friends immediately before the test so it wouldn't ruin her concentration.

The test paper was pretty much what she was expecting. She recognized every question on the paper, but was unsure about some of them. When she was allowed to start writing, the first thing she did was to write out all of the formulas she had learned. She knew it was better to do this at the beginning while she was fresh and could remember them clearly.

Next, she worked out a rough time guide. The test was out of 100 and she had 90 minutes to complete it. This meant she needed to spend about 1 minute per mark and she would have a few minutes at the end to tidy up any questions she was not sure about.

Then she got stuck into the paper and had no trouble with the first half. She was ahead of time when she got up to the more difficult questions later in the test. She couldn't start some of the questions, so she circled those ones to remind her to come back to them later. She told herself: "Don't panic — just do what you can do."

One of the later questions triggered her memory about one of the earlier questions, so she went back to do it.

She found the last few questions to be very difficult, but she told herself that was normal in a math test. She tried drawing a diagram and this helped her to work out what to do to get the last question finished.

There was about 5 minutes left so Sofia read over her solutions and found a few missing parts from her answers (like the units, or a statement of what her answer meant).

The supervisor called "pens down" and she left the room, confident she had done well and feeling good about herself.

Final Thoughts on Sofia's Experiences

"Sofia" is not a real person, but a mix of many of the students I have taught.

Her earlier stress regarding math tests was largely self-induced. She was quite capable of doing each math test and doing quite well, but was very badly organized.

Her feelings about math tests arose from her fear of the unknown (she has no idea what was in the test or what she needed to learn) and performance anxiety (she had a fear of failure).

Her previous lifestyle choices also added to Sofia's stress. She didn't exercise or eat well, and her sleeping habits, especially the night before a test, were quite bad.

Math test anxiety can be reduced, and maybe all it takes is a few simple changes in study patterns and lifestyle choices.

All the best overcoming your fear of math tests!

See the 4 Comments below.

4 Comments on “Overcoming your fear of math tests”

  1. martha augustine says:

    I agree with the part about lifestyle changes. I have this semester's final exams for the next three weeks, and I have already started exercising, getting enough sleep, and eating right. I also take health supplements that I find work very well for me. Thanks for the tips.

  2. Greg A. Johnston says:

    I teach (Honors) Algebra II and Precalculus. My favorite poster in my room reads: "An error doesn't become a mistake until you refuse to correct it." (Author unknown)
    I require my students to submitt a correction to every quiz for a 5% increase in score. They must save all quiz papers to use as a study guide for the unit test. As educators we must find ways to build the confidence level in every student. By correcting the quiz paper , my students are less likely to miss the same type of question again.

  3. nandan says:

    math is great.

  4. Sue VanHattum says:

    I like this. May I give it to students? If so, how do I credit you? (I don't see your name anywhere.) Thanks!

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