It’s a feeling that strikes terror in the hearts of students everywhere. Seated at your desk and handed a sheet of problems, you quickly feel a wave of apprehension sweep over you, generating a level of panic that makes it almost impossible to focus on the questions you’re being asked to solve. Your stomach churns, you start to sweat, and a sense of hopelessness and humiliation makes you want to throw your pencil down before you even begin. You can’t do this. You’ll never be good at it. Math anxiety strikes again.

What’s the cure for math phobia? There are many approaches. Changing your study habits, sticking to a routine before tests, practicing practical applications, and playing math games are common suggestions made by teachers and psychologists; however, a recent study by researchers at Stanford University published in the Journal of Neuroscience suggests that cognitive tutoring—consistent, personalized instruction—can reduce stress and improve performance for students with math anxiety.

In the study, third-graders answered stressful questions about math and took simple problem tests while undergoing functional MRI brain scans. The students were then split into two groups, one with high math anxiety and the other with lower levels. The students in both groups received highly personalized and responsive tutoring over a period of eight weeks. At the end of the study, a new round of brain scans confirmed that, although all of the students performed better in math as a result of the tutoring, the students who had higher anxiety levels exhibited a 20 percent reduction in that emotion. One-to-one tutoring appears to help students face and conquer their fears and give them the confidence to pick up that pencil.

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