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Spacer Mathematics


For more information or help
please contact:
Riverside Campus, Medford
Bea Frederickson
[email protected]
Redwood Campus, Grants Pass
Jennifer Burkes
[email protected]

Math Test Anxiety Tips

Do you dread the thought of taking a math class?
Do you panic during testing?

You may suffer from Math Anxiety and the GOOD NEWS is there is help for you! There is also information on How to take a Math Test.


Are you afraid of math? Do you panic on tests or "blank out" and forget what you have studied, only to recall the material after the test? Then you are just like many other students, in fact, research studies estimate that as many as 50% of you have some degree of math anxiety.

What is math anxiety?  It is a learned fear response to math, which causes disruptive, debilitating consequences on test. It can be so encompassing that is even becomes a dread of doing anything that involves numbers. Although some anxiety at test time is beneficial, it can motivate and energize you, numerous studies show that too much anxiety results in poorer test scores. Besides poor performance on tests, you may be distracted by worrisome thoughts, and be unable to concentrate and recall what you've learned.  You may also set unrealistic performance standards for yourself and imagine catastrophic consequences for your failure to be successful in math. Your physical signs could be all or many of the following: muscle tightness, stomach upset, sweating, headache, shortness of breath, shaking, or rapid heart beat.

The good news is that anxiety is a learned behavior and therefore can be unlearned.  If you wish to stop feeling anxious, the choice is up to you. You can choose to learn behaviors that are more useful to achieve success in math. Proven methods for managing math anxiety will be explained step by step.  You can practice the methods, and then choose those that work best for you. You must make a time commitment to practicing relaxation techniques, studying math and recording your thought patterns.

Remember, it took time to learn your present study habits and to become math anxious.  It will take time to unlearn these behaviors. After you become proficient with these methods, you can devote less time to math. To achieve success there are two distinct areas in which you will begin your work. First, you must study math by using procedures that have been proven to be effective in learning mathematics and taking tests. Second, you must learn to physically and mentally relax, to manage your anxious feelings so that you can think rationally and positively.


Begin now to learn your strategies for success. Have you read gotten familiar with your textbook? Is there advice for the student in the beginning? You should understand the author's organization or "game plan" for your math experience in your course.

The first thing to do to begin studying is to do the reading for the first assignment. If you are in the habit of only reading the examples to learn how to do the exercises - stop now!  It is important that you also read the words to fully understand the concepts. HOW to do a problem isn't the only thing that needs to be learned. WHERE, WHEN and WHY are also essential, and reading helps you answer these question.

Pay particular attention to the objectives at the beginning of each section. Read these at least twice: first, when you do your reading before class and again, after attending class. Ask yourself, "Do I understand what the purpose of this section is?" You should read it again before test time to see if you feel that you have met the objectives.

As you begin your first study session, ask yourself such questions as:
  1. What negative thoughts am I having now?
  2. Why am I feeling these negative thoughts?
  3. When do these thoughts take place?
  4. Where am I when these thoughts take place?
  5. What happened when I became aware of these thoughts?
  6. How do I feel physically?
  7. What emotions am I feeling now?
  8. Are these thoughts making me anxious? Are they interfering with my ability to study?

These first steps are designed to help you start studying math more effectively and to begin managing your anxiety.  Begin now.


When studying math, you must recognize the special requirements for learning it. In addition to reading and understanding what you read, you must be able to apply what you have read. This means that you must know where and when to use specific techniques and what situations call for a particular skill. For example: If it takes 16 gallons of gas to travel 320 miles, how many miles to the gallons are you getting.  What kind of mathematical operation would you use? (Answer: division) Reading the author's application problems and trying to think of examples where you have used or could use these concepts helps you integrate the concept into your experience.

Learning mathematics is also a very linear process.  This means that the information in each chapter will be used in the following chapters.  For example, if you have not mastered multiplication, addition and subtraction, then long division is impossible to learn because it requires all of these prerequisite skills.  Therefore, if you are having difficulty with the current topic, it may be that you have not mastered a previous skill that you need. It will be necessary to go back and learn/relearn this skill before you can continue.  This takes time and may be frustrating.  Remember, learning is not always onward and upward, sometime we have to go back before we can move forward.

Now is the time to formalize a study plan, a time of day, every day, to focus all of your attention on math.  For some students, finding a quiet place in the library to study regularly for one hour is far more efficient than two hours at home where there are constant distractions. For others, forming a study group where you can talk about what you have learned is helpful.  Try to schedule some time as close to the class session as possible while the concepts are fresh in your mind. If you wait several hours to practice what seemed clear during class, you may find that what was clear earlier may no longer be meaningful.  This may mean planning a schedule of classes that includes a hour after math to study. If there are some days that you cannot devote one or two hours to math, find at least a few minutes and review one thing--perhaps read your notes, reread the chapter objectives, or if you want to, do a few problems. This helps to keep the concepts fresh in your memory.

While you are studying, you should still be recording your self-talk. These statements should be revealing a pattern to your thoughts and feelings. You need to analyze these patterns and work on changing anything negative that hinders your success in math. Make a commitment to stay with your study plan each week.


To get the most out of a lecture, you want a good view of the board and to be able to hear the teacher easily. This usually means you should try to sit near the front of the class in the middle. Arrive early for class and use this time productively.  Read over the objectives, do warm-ups, or discuss homework with other students. Make sure that you have your questions ready for the teacher. This getting yourself in the "math mode" means that you will be able to use all of the class time efficiently.

Next, you need to take good notes. This is a skill that very important to your success.  You must get as much information as possible with as little writing as possible. This means you need to develop an abbreviation system that you understand. There are many long words in mathematics that take too long to write. Use abbreviations like add, sub, mult, div  for the operations addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. Whatever you can understand is OK.

You should plan to rework your notes and fill in details as soon as possible. This means you must leave room to do this. One method is to fold your paper in half and take notes only on the left hand side of the paper. This leaves the right side to fill in details and add any material from the text that may help clarify a concept.

You should write down all steps to a problem, even if you do not understand them. Put a question mark next to steps that are unclear and come back to them later. Ask questions whenever you can, but do not stop writing. Listen to the instructor for clues as to what is important for you to write down. If it stressed as being very important, mark this in some special way, such as starring this line.

Some students find using a tape recorder along with notes helpful. By writing, listening, asking questions and perhaps recording, you are staying involved in the class.


Testing is usually the event that causes the most anxiety for students. By studying more effectively, you can eliminate many of the causes of anxiety, but there are other ways to prepare that will help relieve your fears.

If you are math anxious, you may study too much out of fear of failure and don't allow time to rest and nurture yourself.  Every day, allow yourself some time to focus on your concerns, feelings, problems, or anything that might distract you when you try to study. Then, when these thoughts distract you, say to yourself, "I will not think about this now. I will later at ____ o'clock. Now I have to focus on math." If problems become unmanageable, make an appointment with a college counselor.

Nurturing is any activity that will help you recharge your energy. Choose an activity that makes you feel good such as, go for a walk, daydream, read a favorite book, do yard work, take a bubble bath or play basketball.

Other ways to keep your body functioning effectively under stress are diet and exercise.  Exercise is one the most beneficial means of relieving stress. Try to eat healthy foods and drink plenty of water. Avoid caffeine, nicotine, drugs, alcohol and "junk food."

All of your assignments should be done two days before the test if possible. The day before the test should be completely dedicated to reviewing and practicing for the test.

Read the chapter review at the end of the chapter for all the sections on which you will be tested. This is important because it tests your understanding of both the terminology and the concepts. Many students can do the problems, but cannot understand the instructions and terminology so they do not know where to begin. Next, do the review exercises, paying careful attention to the instructions. After you have finished, check your answers. Review any concepts that you have missed or any that you were unsure of or "guessed at."

When you feel comfortable with all of the concepts, you are ready to take the practice test at the end of the chapter. You should simulate the actual testing situation as much as possible. Have all the tools that you will use on the real test, sharpened pencils, eraser, calculator and notes (if they can be used) and give yourself the same amount of time as on the actual test. Plan a time for this when you can be sure there will be no interruptions.

Use the following tips for successful test taking as you do your practice test. Work each problem slowly and carefully, remember, if you make a mistake by rushing through the problem and have to do it over, it will take more time than doing the problems carefully in the first place.

After taking the test, check your answers. Go back and study anything that you feel you do not understand. You should now know if you are ready for the test. If you have been studying effectively and did well on the practice test, you should be ready for the real test. You are prepared!


If you are anxious before an exam, find a place on campus where you can both physically and mentally relax. Arrive in time to arrange all of the things you will need for the test; sharpened pencils, eraser, plenty of scratch paper and a water bottle. Try to avoid talking with classmates about the test, instead, concentrate on deep breathing and relaxation. Review the following suggestions and use those, which may be helpful for you.

  1. If no notes are allowed, before starting the test, write all the things on a separate piece of paper that you may forget while you are busy at work. These include formulas, rules, definitions and reminders to yourself. This relieves the load on your short term memory.
  2. Read all of the test and mark the easiest problems. DON'T SKIP READING THE DIRECTIONS. Note point values so that you don't spend too much time on problems that are worth very little at the expense of problems that are worth a lot.
  3. Do the easiest problems first. Be sure to do your work neatly. If your work cannot be read, you will not get credit for it.
  4. Whenever possible, estimate a reasonable answer before you start a problem and when you finish the problem, check to see if your answer is reasonable. If you get stuck, mark the problem so you will remember to come back to it later and go on to another. Remember to include units (ft., in., $, etc).
  5. Do the rest of the problems in order of difficulty.
  6. Go back to the problems you didn't finish and do what you can. Show all steps because you may get partial credit even if you cannot complete a problem.
  7. When you are finished, if time permits, go back over the test to see that all the problems are finished as much as possible and your answers are indicated. Use all of the time allowed unless you are sure that there is nothing more that you can do.

If you find yourself feeling anxious it may be helpful to have a calming card. This is a 3x5 card on which you list all the ways that you have found to help you relax and stay focused. It may include a personal coping statement such as "I have studied hard and prepared well for this test, I will do fine" or a reminder to stop, breathe and relax your tense muscles.


After the test is graded, pick it up as soon as possible.  If you have made mistakes you should categorize them as:

  1. Careless errors. These errors occur when you know how to do the problem correctly, but don't. These include such things as reading the directions incorrectly, making computational errors or forgetting to do problems.
  2. Concept errors. Errors that if you had to do the problem again, you would still do it wrong because you don't grasp the concept.
  3. Study errors. These occur when you do not spend enough time studying pertinent material. Application errors. This type usually occurs on word problems.

If your error was of the first type, ask yourself if you followed all nine of the suggestions for better test taking. If not, vow to do so on the succeeding tests. List what you will do differently next time so you can minimize these types of errors in the future.

Concept errors need more time. You must review what you didn't understand or you will repeat your mistakes. It is important to grasp these concepts because you will use them later. You may need to seek help from the teacher or a tutor on these kinds of errors.

Avoid study errors by asking the teacher before the test what concepts are most important. Also, pay careful attention to the chapter objectives as these tell you what you are expected to know.

You can avoid application errors by doing as many of the word problems as you can, and then trying to categorize them as to type. Reading the author's strategies can help you think about how to start a problem. It also helps to mix up the problems between sections and to do even number problems where you do not have answers. It is especially important to try to estimate a reasonable answer on these.

Time spent on reviewing errors can help improve future test scores. Don't skip this important step.

Next, take time to think about what you said to yourself during the test. Was this self-talk positive or negative? If the talk was helpful, remember it. Use it again. If not, here are a few suggestions. Write down coping statements that challenge your negative belief patterns. Write these statements down and practice using them. Make them believable. Examples are, "math is challenging, but when I work at it, I can do it," or If I am patient with myself and focus, I can usually solve this kind of problem." Make the statements brief and state them in the present tense.

You may choose to form or join a study group with other math anxious students. Don't use your time together to gripe. Instead use it to discuss and recognize the content of your negative self-talk and to write positive coping statements. Generally negative self statements fall into three categories of irrational beliefs that you have about yourself and how you view the world. They are:

  1. Worrying helps, when in fact worry leads to anxiety which is distracting and hinders performance.
  2. Your worth as a person is determined by your performance. If you believe that being unable to solve math problems means you won't amount to anything, you're a victim of this type of "catastrophizing" thinking.
  3. You think that other students don't experience the same stressors that you do or that they have some magical coping skill that allows them to avoid anxiety, you're comparing yourself to some irrational mythical norm.

Learn from each test so that you can use what was helpful on future tests.  If you are satisfied with the results of the test, congratulate yourself. You have earned it.


Retaining Your Math Skills

Becoming proficient at mathematics requires that you think about how to do problems (set them up) and that you have rehearsed or practiced the process of doing the problems, so it is a combination of thinking and then doing. It is like driving a car. In the beginning, you had to think about every move you made, there were many steps to remember. After learning to drive, you do not think about the driving process, you just do it.

After something is learned, it must be stored in memory. You have both short-term and long-term memory. Short term memory is for information you only need for a short time, as when you look up a phone number and remember it just long enough for you to dial it, and then forget it. The process of driving a car is stored in long-term memory. You would NOT want to relearn this skill every time you needed to drive! The mathematics that you have learned to date is not something you wish to forget. For this to happen, the information must be placed in long-term memory. The concepts that you learned at the beginning of this book have been rehearsed often in the preceding chapters. The concepts in the last chapter have been practiced the least. The most recently learned concepts are the soonest forgotten. Therefore, if you wish to retain this information, you will need to rehearse or review it, especially if you have more math classes to take.

If you have a break until your next math class, you should take some time to look over recently learned material so that you can start the next class well prepared. You should try not to take a term off from math so all of the information stays fresh. It is helpful to keep your textbook if you can, so that it can used for reference in the next class. You have spent many hours working from it and you know where everything is and are familiar with the authors style.

In conclusion, remember that YOU are the person in control of your attitude about mathematics and the decision as to whether to follow an effective study plan or not. Be sure to check out resources that are available to help you with your math experiences, tutoring, videos or handouts that might help. See your instructor if there are problems or to let him/her know what you find helpful or unhelpful about their instruction. They are there to serve you.

Good luck in your Math Class!

For more information or clarification of this writing, please see your mathematics instructor or an RCC Counselor for help.

A collaborative writing by Dorette Long (former mathematics Instructor)  and Sylvia Thomas (former counselor) who saw many struggling math students and gave them this advice.

For more information or help
please contact:
Riverside Campus, Medford
Bea Frederickson
[email protected]
Redwood Campus, Grants Pass
Jennifer Burkes
[email protected]