Don’t Panic! How to hold off maths anxiety in your exam

I turned over the paper and froze. Up until that point I'd been convinced that maths was, and always would be, easy. As such, I'd done next to no revision for this paper, which I needed to do well in to qualify for my next year of studies. This, I realised, was what they meant by maths anxiety.

I could see words I recognised... but I had no idea what any of them meant. My breathing got shallow. My stomach tied up. Everyone around me was merrily writing away. I was going to fail. I was going to get kicked out. I was going to have to tell my mum.

One of the peculiarities of the St Andrews exam system is that you're not allowed to leave in the first or the last half hour of the exam. So I figured, as I was stuck there for another 25 minutes or so, I may as well see what scant marks I could pick up - better to get 2/20 rather than zero, right? So I took a deep breath, turned to the last question and worked backwards.

By the time they announced that half an hour was up, I'd made a decent stab at a couple of questions - not full marks, but enough that I was beginning to wonder about the pass mark. I was (whisper it) almost beginning to enjoy it.

I got lucky and ended up with 13/20 - not stellar, but more than plenty. And after that, I revised properly and learned how to deal with maths anxiety properly.

Here are my top tips for staving off maths panic in exams.

Before the exam

  • Revise properly. Make sure you know what to expect from the paper so you don't get nasty surprises in the exam.
  • Write about the fear. Confronting maths anxiety in a safe environment is a really good way to reduce them. Write down exactly what you're afraid of, exactly how it feels when you're panicky, and - this is the most important bit - the worst that can happen if it goes pear shaped. For you, it's likely to be "I have to resit the module", which is inconvenient but hardly a disaster.
  • Talk yourself up. I go crazy when I hear people saying "I don't have a maths brain" or (worse) when parents say it about their kids. It's nonsense and I won't tolerate it. It's like saying you don't have walking legs or seeing eyes. Instead, say "I'm good at [your favourite topics] and I'm learning about [some others]." Giving yourself a good name is extraordinarily powerful.

In the exam

  • Breathe properly. When you get panicky, your breathing gets shallow, which just makes things worse. Take notice of how you're breathing and make sure your lungs are getting enough air to power your brain.
  • Find things you can do. I used to have the phrase "set aside your fears and make a small, imperfect start" written on the whiteboard in my office. Once you get started, things are a bit easier and sometimes you can build up enough of a head of steam to pull you through.
  • Sit up straight. It's surprising how much your posture affects your state of mind. If you're hunched over, your brain gets the message that you feel weak and powerless. If you sit up straight, you feel more confident and ready to think.

After the exam

  • Be positive. Don't be one of the boring people who say "that was terrible, I'm sure I failed," because you'll just build up an image of yourself as a failure. Which you're not. Instead, say things like "I found the question on [x] a bit tricky, but I'm sure I got good marks on questions [y] and [z]."
  • Treat yourself. Ice cream is good.

What are your best maths anxiety stories? And what are your favourite tips for getting it under control?


(Image by zooboing licensed under a Creative Commons CC-BY licence)

Colin

Colin is a Weymouth maths tutor, author of several Maths For Dummies books and A-level maths guides. He started Flying Colours Maths in 2008. He lives with an espresso pot and nothing to prove.

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I teach in my home in Abbotsbury Road, Weymouth.

It's a 15-minute walk from Weymouth station, and it's on bus routes 3, 8 and X53. On-road parking is available nearby.

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