How can feedback reduce math anxiety in first-year students?

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Math Anxiety in Higher Education

Math Anxiety

When it comes to the Math Problem, one of the biggest culprits is math anxiety. According to a study conducted in Sheffield University with their students, 88% of students expected to study math or statistics as part of their course. Of the 88%, 48% were worried about it. Another study done by Springfield College found that 85% of students who took introductory mathematics classes claim to feel at least mild math anxiety, according to surveys taken during the first week of the semester. While there are varying definitions of math anxiety that highlight different nuances of it, it can be generally seen as feelings of apprehension and panic that are triggered in individuals when asked to compute a basic mathematical problem.

Apart from causing general stress and mental pressure, math anxiety is also seen as one of the contributing factors to the growing trend of poor performances in introductory math classes on a higher education level. Studies have shown that math anxiety chips away at the brain’s working memory capacity as a significant amount of it is taken up with just worries and fears about mathematics. In other words, since so much brain capacity is taken by worrying about math as opposed to dedicating that capacity to solving a math problem, math problems in general become harder than they actually are.


While there are many ways to combat math anxiety, one of the strategies at the forefront is feedback. Literature on feedback defines it as:

“information with which a learner can confirm, add to, overwrite, tune, or restructure information in memory, whether that information is domain knowledge, metacognitive knowledge, beliefs about self and tasks, or cognitive tactics and strategies.”

What is good feedback and how can it help?

The benefit of feedback can already be clearly seen in its definition. By providing students with the right kind of feedback, teachers are giving students an opportunity to change their beliefs about self and tasks; which in this case would be that they are actually capable of solving mathematical problems.

Not just right or wrong

It’s important to note that this metacognitive change cannot be coaxed by just marking answers right or wrong. Rather, research has shown that providing specific comments about students’ computational processes are much more effective. By doing so, students are no longer facing a brick wall when they get an answer wrong but rather a door that shows them the way to the correct answer.

Every student is not the same

Another thing to keep in mind would be to make the feedback as personalized as possible. This is mainly because the students attending most introductory college math courses come from very diverse schooling backgrounds and have varying levels of mathematical understanding. Consequently, what one student might find problematic is not necessarily what another student would. With such a diverse student cohort, generic feedback will not do the job to alleviate every individual student’s concerns when it comes to their mathematical capability and understanding.

The sooner the better

Lastly, providing feedback on a timely and immediate basis can also be seen as something crucial when looking to integrate proper support within one’s curriculum. If a student only receives feedback on their understanding of a course at the final summative, you are not providing the student with any opportunity to actually correct their misunderstandings. Conversely, if feedback can be continually given while the student is engaged in their work throughout the duration of a course, the student will be much more receptive to it and more importantly, the student will have enough time to make improvements. This will also reduce a student’s anxiety when it comes to testing taking because the uncertainty element of such an endeavour will be taken out of the equation since they are provided feedback on a regular basis about their progress within a course. So instead of just worrying about how they might do on a test, they can already get started on working on their identified weak points. In other words, by reducing the time it takes to provide students with the right kind of feedback, you are reducing the time it takes for a student to achieve the required level of understanding.

Implementing Feedback in Maths Classroom

Feedback in Classroom

When it comes to the implementation of useful, personalized and immediate feedback in a course, one of the biggest challenges a teacher faces is time. With lesson planning, teaching hours and administrative tasks like book-keeping and grading, most teachers simply don’t have the time to provide their students with the kind of feedback that is outlined above on a regular basis. Consequently, teachers that are still interested in providing their students with regular feedback often rely on student self-evaluation or peer evaluation on weekly assignments. While this does take care of the timely aspect of good feedback, the usefulness of the self/peer feedback is dependent on the student’s understanding of subject matter. While a student might be capable of comparing their own answer or their peers’ answers with an answer sheet and deciding if the answer is right or wrong, it is highly unlikely the student is able to discern what exact misconception led to the wrong answer in the first place.

There are also higher education institutions who put in place math help centers to solve this problem. While this is a very effective way of dealing with math anxiety and poor math performance, it is quite often a very expensive solution as well as one that does not address all the ‘at-risk’ students. A study conducted in Ireland with first year service mathematics students across 9 higher education institutions claimed that an estimated 33% of ‘at-risk’ students do not use their respective institute’s math help center. According to the study, these students were either too afraid or too embarrassed to actively seek out help from the math help centers.

Over the last 10 years, we have been using computer-aided assessment to help teachers give more frequent feedback to their students. With the help of our tool, teachers are able to assign practice or homework assignments to their students that have automated and personalized feedback integrated into them. The automated feedback allows students to begin to solve their learning problems and deficiencies in knowledge by themselves, without always having to rely on a teacher to make time for them. Our tool is able to analyse every student’s answer attempt and identify where and what the mistakes are, which enables it to automatically give hints and tips specific to a student’s learning path. Every student gets this feedback regardless of their input, whether it’s a wrong answer or a correct step towards the right one.

SOWISO Automated Feedback

Animation of the SOWISO automated personalised feedback

The feedback is provided in the form of lines of text which pop up depending on the input of the student. When the answer is incorrect, our tool will point out where and allow students additional attempts. The adaptive feedback provides positive feedback loops for students, where they are guided through their attempts at solving problems, rather than given a “correct/incorrect” response.

By having such a tool at their disposal, teachers are able to ensure that every student gets the support and help they need on their individual learning journey. Our tool ensures that teachers do not spend too much time addressing learning issues that students can solve themselves, allowing teachers to reserve their energy for more complicated and intractable problems or struggling students. On top of that, by automating the majority of the feedback that a student receives, teachers can also now focus their energies on making the contact teaching time as constructive and enjoyable as possible.

In essence, by working in tandem, our tool providing feedback for more basic conceptual misunderstandings in process and knowledge and the teachers providing feedback for the more complex ones, we can make sure that every student has the right amount of feedback within any mathematics course.

Make sure to try our feedback tool here!

Try it yourself!