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.