Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Math Relax: A Guided Visualization for Overcoming Test Anxiety in Math

If you are nervous during tests, try listening to this every night for a few weeks. (Although I don't feel the quality is perfect, and eventually hope to redo it, many students have found it very helpful.)

If you like it, please let me know.

This recording combines relaxation techniques with a guided meditation focused on enjoying math (and tests) more. It may seem absurd now, but if you repeatedly imagine yourself actually looking forward to a test, then you’ll eventually find your outlook at test time to be at least a little bit more positive. The techniques I use in this recording are taken from the work of Margo Adair in her book on applied meditation, Working Inside Out.

Voice: Sue VanHattum
Flute music: Wayne Organ
Applied Meditation Concepts: Margo Adair
Script: Sue VanHattum
Recording Studio: Contra Costa College
Preliminary Release: Muskegon Community College
Tested by: students at Muskegon Community College and Contra Costa College

If you find this helpful, please let me know. If it has made a big difference for you, please consider making a donation in Margo Adair's name to one of the following organizations. Margo Adair died of cancer on September 2, 2010. Please make sure the organization is still active before donating.

How To Use This Recording

Before listening to this recording for the first time, read “That’s How Math Is” (below), which talks about math learning, and includes a summary of problem-solving steps, so you can approach math from a good perspective.

The more often you listen to this recording, the more effect it will have. I recommend listening at bedtime every night. (Don’t worry if you fall asleep during the recording, your subconscious will still hear it.) If possible, start at least 2 weeks before your next test. Whenever you start, keep using this recording through at least two months and two tests. Whether it’s helpful or not, I’d like to hear from you.

Contact me if you'd like a script of the recording. (Useful if you want to make a recording in a different voice, or with changes to the words, perhaps to use for a different subject.)

Jean Harvey, a student who used this while taking the Beginning Algebra course at Contra Costa College, says it took about 3 weeks of listening to it every night for it to make a difference. She didn’t expect to pass 118 and ended up earning a B in the course. She went from a 69% on the first test to a 96% on the second test.

“That’s How Math Is…”

Some things to know about learning math:
• In an ideal world, everyone would have lots of hands-on experiences to help them internalize ideas related to number, would always learn at their own pace, on their own schedule, and would have access to tutors and mentors who love math and love helping people find a good path to follow in order to learn it.

This is not that world - many students learned math from teachers who were themselves uncomfortable with it. (I’d guess about 4 out of 5 people are uncomfortable with math, and elementary teachers probably aren’t any better than the general population in this.) Those teachers were not able to explain math concepts in a way that made them make sense, and were often tense and would do ineffective things like requiring students to follow the book’s method. So the cycle of discomfort continues.

• Math concepts build on the ones before in a way that’s not seen in any other subject area. Even with good teachers, if you miss a few months in third grade (for example), that hole may cause you grief forever. If you recognize that there are holes in your past learning, it will be especially helpful to work with a good tutor or mentor to fill them in.

• Math is not about memorization; it’s about understanding. Ask why every step of the way, and you’ll learn math in a deeper, more satisfying way.

• Once you understand something well in math, it suddenly seems so easy that it’s hard to understand why it took so long to ‘get it’. This is true with any new concept, but it’s particularly noticeable with math: Imagine… You’re in class, struggling with a problem that seems impossible, and the person next to you blurts out “That’s easy!” You feel like a fool. It’s happened to just about everyone, including that person who thought it was easy. This happens partly because new synapses (connections between neurons/brain cells) are made as you learn – once they’re made the thing that seemed impossible now seems easy.

Even mathematicians are likely to feel dumb at first when looking at a new problem. That sensation of having no clue how to get started can be overwhelming. But the good mathematician has had enough successful experiences in their past that they find it easier to tell themselves they can do it. (When faced with a problem that’s hard for me, I often have this argument going on in my head: I can’t do this! Yes you can. No I can’t…)

Good mathematicians also have some techniques for problem-solving that help them break things down. Here are the 4 steps that George Polya proposed (but there's much more to it than this). More on this here.
1. Understand the problem.
2. Make a plan for how you might solve it.
3. Carry out your plan.
4. Look back. (Check your work, see how it might apply to other problems, etc.)

Solving math problems can be a real struggle, but the satisfaction once you do solve your problem can be quite powerful. Think of math problems as puzzles to solve, think of yourself as a detective, and have fun!

Added on 11/21/11: Test anxiety can be addressed in many ways. This guided visualization is one way. Googling 'test anxiety' will help you find many other ways. One method you might find helpful is described here, along with the research supporting it.


  1. Thanks so much for sharing this! I will definitely share it with all of my students.

  2. I totally agree with your comment about how an absence can leave a hole in understanding that may never be plugged. It reminds me so much of a brick wall. Every brick rests on at least 2 others, and if one brick is missing low down, the whole structure is weakened. In this I think math is unique, and that is why so many teachers of other subjects (and administrators) have a really hard time understanding that our needs are different. That and the fact that as you say, 4 out of 5 people are not comfortable with math. (Or as the T shirt from Meijer says, 5 out of 4 people have difficulty with fractions)

  3. @MathFaery, Thanks for coming by. Please let me know if any of them find it helpful.

    @Kate, It's funny you should mention that. I changed the wording a bit, and actually debated leaving it out. Those holes wouldn't be such a problem if students believed they could be independent learners. If math were presented as being about reasoning, students who are missing a piece might recognize that, and decide to work on it.

    Hmm, I'm not sure yet how to frame it, but I want to write a post about this. Maybe just to pose a question...

  4. plugging the holes in the wall is much harder the later you leave it in my experience. As a high school teacher, I often had to deconstruct years of crumbling masonry to insert a brick into its proper place......

  5. Sue this is awesome. You have a lovely speaking voice.

  6. Why, thank you, Kate!

    I had a bit of a scratchy throat when I made that, actually. I think I can make it much better. But your compliment reassures me that it's good enough for now.

  7. I love the "This is how math is" section of this post. The part about math concepts building in a way not found in other subjects made sense to me because that's the way I've built my program -- a sequence of activities that build on one another and build choreography and math understanding at the same time. Plus, in my residency I model a 'problem solving process' similar to the one you outlined here, starting with 'understand'.

  8. Needed, it's really very relaxing. Hope to implement it right away. Thanks for sharing.

  9. Hi Sue...This is awesome. Can't wait to share it with my son. Would it be possible to get the script? Thanks very much. :-) -AJ

  10. Sure. I know blogger asks for your email, but I sure don't know how to see it. You can email me at mathanthologyeditor on gmail to request a copy of the script.


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