Overcoming Mathematics and Testing Anxiety with Research-Based Strategies

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Theresa Hoang and Darolyn Flaggs

Theresa Hoang is a Ph.D. student in the Developmental Education program at Texas State University with a specialization in developmental math.  Previously, she earned her M.A. from the same program with a concentration in literacy.  She has taught learning frameworks at the college level and mathematics at the high school, and she has assisted in teaching developmental reading and developmental mathematics at Texas State University.  Her research interests include motivation of underprepared students in higher education and social psychological interventions.

Darolyn Flaggs is a Ph.D. student in the Developmental Education Program at Texas State University with a specialization in Developmental Mathematics. She received her B.S. in Mathematics at Texas Southern University and her M.Ed. in Mathematics Education at Texas State University. Her research interests include studying historically underrepresented student populations within the mathematics setting and exploring variables affecting student’s persistence to degree completion. Ms. Flaggs has taught undergraduate mathematics courses, been involved in the revision of the developmental mathematics scope and sequence, and lesson plans, and worked with FOCUS and SLAC at Texas State University. She is currently working under the research mentorship of Dr. Taylor Acee in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction.

How does mathematics and testing anxiety affect your students?  As doctoral students teaching developmental mathematics for the first time, we quickly realized the extent to which mathematics and testing anxiety was hurting our students’ academic outcomes.  During office hours, students often self-proclaimed to having anxiety about test-taking and about mathematics in general.  While not all students explicitly told us about their worries, it was sometimes intuitively clear that they struggled with mathematics and testing anxiety.  These common occurrences led us to explore deeper into what was causing students to have feelings of anxiety and what could we do as mathematics educators to help our students in these situations.

While searching through the literature, we found an incredible useful journal article that we would like to share with you entitled “Anxiety and Cognition” and written by Maloney, Sattizahn, and Beilock (2004).  In this article, Maloney et al. (2014) described how mathematics and testing anxiety affected the brain; anxiety can cause maladaptive physical responses and negative thoughts, which can take up prefrontal cortical resources and working memory that could otherwise be used for mathematics.  To combat these effects in the brain, Maloney et al. (2014) identified key strategies across a plethora of anxiety research.  These primary strategies included expressive writing (Park, Ramirez, & Beilock, 2014), arousal reappraisal (Jamieson, Mendes, Blackstock, & Schmader, 2010), stereotype threat reappraisal (Johns, Schmader, & Martens, 2005), and breathing exercises (Brunye, Mahoney, Giles, Rapp, Taylor, & Kanarek, 2013).  While in-depth information about each strategy can be found in Maloney et al.’s (2014) article, the following list will provide brief descriptions of how to implement each strategy:

  • Expressive Writing: Immediately before students take an exam, ask students to write about their feelings about the upcoming exam for 10 minutes. The goal of this activity is for students to express their negative thoughts and worries before the exam so that during the exam, students can use their working memory to think about their math problems instead of their anxieties.
  • Arousal Reappraisal: Students who perform well on tests regardless of their anxiety tend to look at stress-inducing situations as a challenge instead of a threat. So, when students begin to feel their heart rate increasing or their body sweating because of a stress-inducing situation, encourage students to interpret those signs of arousal as normal physiological responses to a challenge and that these signs can actually help with performance rather than hurt it.
  • Stereotype Threat Reappraisal: This strategy is useful for groups of people, such as women or students of color, who may experience stereotype threat, which is “the fear of acting in such a way that confirms a negative stereotype about a group to which one belongs” (Maloney et al., 2014, p. 408). Informing these students about the existence of stereotype threat and the possibility of anxiety arising from stereotype threat can help students assess why they feel anxious and perform better on exams.
  • Breathing Exercises: Encouraging students to engage in focused breathing exercises before exams, similar to the one found here, can increase student performance. By completing the breathing exercises before exams, students may be able to focus their attention better and free up cognitive resources to use during exams.

Over the past few decades, the role of developmental mathematics instructors have evolved; not only do instructors play a key role in facilitating the growth of student knowledge in mathematics, but effective instructors also address non-academic factors, such as motivation and anxiety, to further increase their students’ success.  By learning and practicing these research-based strategies proven to help students with mathematics and testing anxiety, instructors have the golden opportunity to positively impact student success.


Maloney, E. A., Sattizahn, J. R., & Beilock, S. L. (2014). Anxiety and cognition. WIREs Cognitive Science, 5(4), 403-411.



Transforming Instruction with Technology


Nathalie Vega-Rhodes

Nathalie Vega-Rhodes is currently a professor of mathematics and the mathematics technology coordinator at Lone Star College – Kingwood. She specializes developmental education redesign and focuses on researching and create valuable resources for students and instructors. Prior to her time at Lone Star, Vega-Rhodes taught mathematics and college student success courses at other institutions around the Houston area. Vega-Rhodes earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in mathematics with a minor in geology from the University of Houston and a Master of Science degree in mathematics from the University of Houston-Clear Lake. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, traveling, and scuba diving.

Technology is advancing exponentially in our world; its use is growing in our classrooms whether we want it to or not.  Beetham and McGill (2012) observed that technology is “transforming what it means to work, study, research, express oneself, perhaps even to think.”   Bowen (2014) agrees and would further add that this growth has made course design and pedagogy more important than ever.  Given this current and irreversible trend, we must harness the benefits of this tool to enhance learning in the classroom.

As instructors, it’s incumbent upon us to leverage technology to engage students as well as organize our courses in a clear and concise manner.  Learning management systems (e.g. Moodle, Desire2Learn, Blackboard, etc.) at most institutions are a means by which instructors can manage learning and connect with students.  Clearly-named modules, checklists and release restrictions ensure access to relevant information and keep students on track.  Additional features such as Intelligent Agents allow instructors to define criteria for automated and personalized communication at critical points throughout the semester.

Other options for creating dynamic courses are college-supported software programs such as Softchalk or Webex.   For example, Softchalk can be used to create interactive lessons, while Webex can be used to meet with students virtually, thereby eliminating the age-old problem of providing timely feedback for students who are not present in a traditional face-to-face classroom.  Instructors and students can share screens to discuss concepts or work out examples, either one-on-one or in a group.  An added benefit of these software programs is that they can be integrated with most learning management systems, making for a seamless student experience.

While proper organization is unquestionably important, by itself it is insufficient.  One of the problems that instructors have traditionally faced is lack of available information, which means that instructors may not always know when to intervene or what interventions are necessary.  A valuable tool to solve these problems is the analysis capabilities in online homework systems. Easily accessible reports can be used to track progress and determine challenging concepts for individual students or the entire class.  This data can be used for evaluating current assignments or improving future courses.

In addition to online homework systems, an easy and convenient way to engage students is by harnessing the capabilities of pervasive smartphone or tablet apps.  A few favorites include Attendance (easy recording/reporting of student attendance), Show Me (easy video creation), Notability (note-taking), and Google Voice (texting/phone calls without sharing a personal phone number). Each of these apps have the potential to increase efficiency with everyday tasks.

In summary, these tools, when coupled with thoughtful implementation, can truly impact teaching and learning.  McLoughlin and Lee (2008) stated that “technological resources provide opportunities for a range of interactions, communicative exchanges, and sharing, but it is not possible to base an entire sequence of learning episodes based on tools.”  Indeed, I am able to do more and better for my students since the immediate feedback allows me to tailor specific solutions based on each student’s needs.  I look forward to increased productive interactions with my students using innovations, both present and future.


Bowen, J. A. (2014). The teaching naked cycle. Liberal Education100(2), 18-25.

Littlejohn, A., Beetham, H., & McGill, L. (2012).  Learning at the digital frontier: a review of digital literacies in theory and practice. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 28(6), 547-556. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2729.2011.00474.x

McLoughlin, C. & Lee, M. J. W. (2008). The three p’s of pedagogy for the networked society: Personalization, participation, and productivity. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 20(1), 10-27.

Program Improvement in Adult Education through Professionalization

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David Borden

David Borden, dborden@austincc.edu, currently works at Austin Community College as the Director of the Career Accelerator, a program dedicated to moving non-traditional students through career pathways–associate degree programs faster and with more supports. He holds a Master’s Degree from UNT. He has taught and managed programs in the U.S. and abroad. This article is adapted from a forthcoming book titled, Unrig the Game: A Proven, Systematic Approach to Successful College Transitions for Adult and Developmental Education Students, with co-author, Charlene Gill.

Payne et al. (2012) show that full-time Adult Basic Education instructors achieve better student performance results than part-time instructors. Unfortunately, very few program directors believe they can afford the expense of hiring full-time instructors. During my nine year tenure as the adult education director at ACC, I oversaw the increase of salaried instructors with health insurance and retirement increase from 9 to 22. During that period, we made significant investments in instructor salary and benefits, but also witnessed significant enrollment increases and performance improvements.

I believe the path to professionalizing the industry is not found in low pay and/or encouraging regions to use more volunteers. Rather, the path is by providing teachers with stable employment, health insurance, retirement plans, and sustained and systematic professional development; by engaging them in decision-making; and by moving away from a seniority system to one that rewards excellence in teaching.

Raising teacher salaries is a long term solution that is difficult to implement in the short term. In our case, salaried instructors cost 30% – 50% more than hourly instructors when you factor in health insurance and retirement plans. This expense can be hard on a limited grant budget, and impossible on a small budget. We have a large enough program (about 4,000 students served per year) that I could find places to reallocate resources. I shut down classes with low enrollment, even with long-standing, high-profile partners that didn’t appreciate being sacrificed for the greater good. Every four classes closed generated a twenty-hour-a-week, salaried instructor with full benefits. Average class sizes grew, but we still capped enrollment at 20 per class.

This strategy created a core faculty that often accrue between 30 and 50 hours of professional development per year. These faculty are engaged in curriculum development, mentoring hourly instructors, and leading workshops. Over the years, hourly and salaried instructors have seen our commitment to them, and they have returned that commitment to the program. These changes have increased our ability to recruit teachers because salaries are more competitive with staff jobs at the college; thus, our ratio of teachers with master’s degrees has doubled. In addition, we’ve reduced costs associated with attrition and training.

In conclusion, we only hire the highest quality instructors into the core faculty. We do not follow a seniority system, but rather look to fill these positions with teachers who not only are effective with students, but also demonstrate a belief in the mission of the division by collaborating well with their colleagues to make considerable contributions.


Payne, E.M., Reardon, R.F., Janysek, D.M., Lorenz, M., Lampi, J.P. (2012). Impact on student performance: Texas Adult Education Teacher Credential Study preliminary results. Report for The Texas Adult Education Credential Project, Texas State University


Doing Different in the Mathematics Classroom


Stephanie Cockrell Andrews, Ed.D.

Dr. Stephanie Cockrell Andrews is a mathematics professor and the mathematics department lead faculty at Lone Star College-Kingwood (LSC-K).  She has earned degrees from East Texas Baptist University, Stephen F. Austin State University, and Sam Houston State University. This is her 28th year in education, where 15 of those years were in public education as a secondary mathematics teacher and counselor.  Stephanie was a 2006 Project ACCCESS fellow with the American Mathematical Association of Two-Year Colleges (AMATYC). She has received the Faculty Excellence Award at LSC-K and the Educational Leadership Doctoral Award at Sam Houston State University.  She is a member of the Delta Kappa Gamma Society International for Key Women Educators. 

In the report, Closing the Gaps by 2015: 2009 Progress Report, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB, 2009) stated, “Texas must take bold steps for the future success of its people” (p. ii). Being the math chair, my president was always stressing to me that we needed to increase student success (A, B, or C) in our developmental courses, to get more students to and through our gateway mathematics course—and to do it all faster! Add in the definition of insanity—attributed to several, including Einstein (Howes, 2009)—of “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results,” and I was determined to do something that was bold and different.

So, during 2013 – 2014, I taught Foundations of Mathematical Reasoning (FMR) and Statistical Reasoning (SR) using the curriculum from The Dana Center at The University of Texas in Austin, and it rocked my academic world. I am a dedicated, traditional algebra teacher, and I have received awards for teaching, but when I taught these courses, my life and the lives of my students changed. The New Mathways Project (NMP) courses are based on principles including to provide relevant and rigorous mathematics, help students complete college-level math courses faster and use intentional strategies that help students grow as learners (The Charles A. Dana Center, 2013).

I have always been told that, while I am teaching, I should include real-world problems, interdisciplinary activities, collaborative work, active learning, productive struggle, reading and writing. I could not get all of this included much less included well, but NMP incorporates all of these skill—all based on proven practice! I did it with NMP!  I saw it work for me and be transformational for my students.

Even though this is controversial, I believe what I experienced teaching these courses is a strong rationale that this can be done and should be done. The courses are rigorous, involve collaborative learning; are saturated with real-world problems that the students get excited about (e.g., blood-alcohol-level formula for order of operations); teach students to be much better college students and well-informed citizens; and are much more closely aligned with degree programs than college algebra for non-STEM majors.

Testimonials from students include a video from Holly at https://utexas.box.com/s/vmr9xlba4kxv66csehm35obdsm716yml.

And an article by Kaleena Steakle at https://www.theguardian.com/pearson-partner-zone/2016/aug/31/approaching-math-differently-to-change-lives.

I have been working the last two years for The Dana Center helping other professors in our state and nation implement the NMP materials, but this week, I started back in the classroom! I have three, full FMR classes, and I am extremely excited to see how the students will grow this semester and be propelled to the next steps of their careers.


Howes, Ryan. (2009, July 27). The definition of insanity is…perseverance vs. perseveration. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/in-therapy/200907/the-definition-insanity-is

Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. (2009). Closing the gaps by 2015: 2009 progress report. Retrieved from http://www.thecb.state.tx.us/reports/pdf/1852.pdf

The Charles A. Dana Center. (2016). The New Mathways Project curricular materials. Retrieved from http://www.utdanacenter.org/higher-education/new-mathways-project/new-mathways-project-curricular-materials/


Beyond Pro and Con: Re-thinking MOOCs

william j barry profile 2016 (1)

William J. Barry

While pursuing his research interests, which include effective technology use, especially among students in transition, William J. Barry teaches developmental reading at St. Edward’s University.  He also trains adult educators in partnership with the Texas Center for the Advancement of Literacy and Learning (TCALL), and teaches first-year seminar at Texas State University, where he is a PhD candidate in developmental education.

Questions of access and affordability remain at the heart of the developmental education discussion (Braun, 2016; Floyd, Felsher, & Ramdin, 2016), and as the results of Moore’s Law continue to bring the world increasingly powerful technology, stakeholders turn to ones and zeroes for answers.  Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) represent one such proposal enjoying ample coverage in the literature (e.g., Bastedo, 2016; McClure, 2016).  Advocates say MOOCs increase the accessibility of high-quality education while decreasing the costs (Carey, 2012; Teo, 2015), and critics point to the low academic rigor of MOOCs, while suggesting they profit at the expense of faculty and students (Axmann & Atkins, 2016; Marshall, 2014).

Despite this crucial debate, MOOC critiques rarely consider college students’ perceptions and attitudes.  While administrators, faculty, and media argue apace, it remains unclear how students view MOOCs.  As an educator in the developmental space, I consider students the primary stakeholders.  As such, I expect MOOC policy to benefit students first.  I expect researchers and faculty interested in MOOCs to focus on how students perceive these issues.  After all, their education faces significant transformation in the face of widespread MOOC implementation.

Such expectations drew my attention to a recent study (Cole & Timmerman, 2015), which examined students’ MOOC perceptions.  Using thematic analysis, Cole and Timmerman (2015) suggested students believe MOOCs hold the potential to augment lifelong learning, even though they serve as inferior alternatives to traditional coursework.  Students made their determinations based on several interesting criteria (see Figure 1), which suggest a deeper appreciation for what works in education.  These kinds of nuanced student responses also suggest the value of asking deeper questions regarding MOOC utility, rather than yielding to seductive pro/con binaries.  Answers to such questions inform decisions with regard to the place of MOOCs in higher education, and those decisions stand to affect each one of us in yet unseen ways.

Figure 1.

bill barrys infograph

Click on image to enlarge.


Axmann, M., & Atkins, R. (2016). Online community-based practices for massive open online courses (MOOCs) at Open Universities Australia: A case Study. User-Centered Design Strategies for Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), 83.

Bastedo, M. N. (2016). American higher education in the twenty-first century: Social, political, and economic challenges. Baltimore, MD: JHU Press.

Braun, H. (2016). The dynamics of opportunity in America: A working framework. In The Dynamics of Opportunity in America (pp. 137-164). New York: Springer International Publishing.

Carey, K. (2012, September 7). Into the future with MOOCs. Chronicle of Higher Education, 59(2), 29.

Cole, A. W., & Timmerman, C. E. (2015). What do current college students think about MOOCs? MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 11, 188-201.

Floyd, D. L., Felsher, R. A., & Ramdin, G. (2016). A retrospective of four decades of community college research. Community College Journal of Research and Practice40(1), 5-22.

Marshall, S. (2014). Exploring the ethical implications of MOOCs. Distance Education, 35, 250-262. doi:10.1080/01587919.2014.917706

McClure, M. W. (2016). Investing in MOOCs: “Frenemy” risk and information quality. In Globalisation and Higher Education Reforms (pp. 77-94). New York: Springer International Publishing.

Teo, T. H. (2015). Just-in-time teaching visual instruction for cohort base interactive learning for engineering course. GSTF Journal on Education (JEd)3(1).