I was a very blessed scholar in my day in ways I did not even know.
I was known as an intelligent student who excelled in every class. Since I was a good test-taker with refined test-prep abilities, I always finished exams with time to spare and double-checked my work. To a great extent, this aided me in my Math studies by allowing me to spot and fix apparent errors. A couple of students in my class required time extensions because they had trouble finishing their tests on time. I could tell that students were anxious before exams, but I’ve always held the view that there’s no need to be provided you’ve done your homework.
Well… what I learned once I was the teacher still shocks me to my core and challenges my entire mindset.
Before I was a teacher, I had no idea how many learners battle against the time constraints on tests – particularly Math tests. I work with learners in small groups and one-on-one sessions. I see about 30 to 40 learners weekly. Granted, they come to me for extra help, but I was still shocked that, by my estimation, 70-80% of my learners barely finish their Math tests, if they manage to finish them at all. As much as I try to convince my learners that it does not matter and that it is not the end of the world, to them, it is a big deal and ultimately stresses them out.
The learners can spend hours and hours preparing for the test, and by all standards, they are well prepared…
but they enter the test on the back foot. They’re anxious, some panicking, and many are obsessed with the fear that they won’t make it to the end of the test. Even if they begin writing, they will only give themselves a few minutes to struggle with a “tricky” question before giving up and panicking. Students who are pressed for time often scribble haphazardly, failing to give each question the attention it deserves or failing to answer a question at all.
The stress they encounter during these episodes can be classified as debilitating stress that hinders functioning. This kind of stress reduces optimal cognitive functioning and increases anxiety. It manifests as learners making mistakes they would not make under relaxed conditions, leading to lower marks. As a result, many learners believe they are bad at math and start to dislike it or, worse, fear it.
I don’t know what can be done about this problem on a large scale, which I find very frustrating. I often look at the tests of my learners and wonder if the school system is testing to see whether learners can do Math or whether they can do Math fast. These are two very different goals that will yield very different results. However, the time constraint on tests is a logistical necessity and an ingrained part of the system.
For now, I will focus on battling the anxiety in my learners by focusing on their mathematical strengths and capabilities, instilling confidence in them and praising their small victories.
What we can do together, as the support system of the learners, is to take the external pressure off. They are already feeling the need to perform, and they have already set the standard for themselves. When they disappoint themselves, they should not feel that they have also disappointed us. There is enough internal pressure that we need to provide external calm – a safe space where they can keep trying and where their fear of Math can be reduced.
For the love of math,