Maths anxiety is defined as a feeling of tension and anxiety that interferes with the manipulation of numbers and the solving of mathematical problems in ordinary life and academic situations.
Current research has shown that:
- Maths anxiety is seen in around 10% of pupils1
- More prevalent in female pupils than males2
- Maths anxiety has a significant impact on performance in maths, particularly in secondary school2.
It has also been found that maths causes anxiety and avoidance in students more so than any other subject3.
Awareness of maths anxiety and impact on pupils
I believed that this was a very important topic, especially considering the correlation between maths anxiety and performance. Furthermore, research has highlighted that there is very little training about maths anxiety4. I devised a questionnaire for pupils in secondary schools as well as a questionnaire for teachers to investigate maths anxiety in pupils and to see how teachers perceive maths anxiety.
In the pupils’ questionnaire, I looked at what factors have an impact on maths anxiety. I found that, like the previous research suggests, gender plays a significant role in maths anxiety, with females reporting on average almost twice as many anxiety inducing factors. Furthermore, the lower the grade the pupil reported getting, the more items they reported feel anxious about. I also found some results that have not yet been investigated in the literature. I found that the number of items pupils reported feel anxious about significantly affects whether a pupil wishes to carry on doing maths after GCSE and how happy a pupil would feel doing maths in a job in the future. Maths anxiety also significantly impacts how confident the pupil is in maths and how much they enjoy the subject.
Clearly the results show that maths anxiety impacts so much more than just the progress that a pupil makes in maths. It affects a pupil’s confidence and enjoyment of the subject, as well as potentially resulting in a lifelong impaired relationship with maths. 3% of the pupils that I surveyed said that they would turn down a job in the future if maths was involved; this equates to over 200,000 secondary school aged pupils in England.
Maths anxiety is something to be aware of in the classroom. I investigated the factors that pupils reported feeling most anxious about. Somewhat unsurprisingly, pupils reported feeling most anxious about test and exam related issues. However, over 40% of pupils also reported feeling anxious when the teacher asked them questions in front of the class, and over 30% reported feeling anxious doing a word problem in maths.
The teacher questionnaires highlighted how little awareness teachers have of maths anxiety. In fact, over 20% of maths teachers either had never heard of maths anxiety, or had heard of it, but didn’t know anything else about it. Over 65% of teachers felt more training on maths anxiety would be beneficial. It is concerning how prevalent maths anxiety appears to be, and yet it is unknown to so many teachers.
So what can be done?
One of the biggest things that I believe could make a big difference is being aware of maths anxiety as a teacher. By knowing the impact of maths anxiety, we can better understand the need to educate ourselves on this. Researchers have suggested that to reduce maths anxiety, teachers should:
- Show that they enjoy maths5
- Show the use of maths in careers and everyday life5,6
- Adapt the teaching of maths to the interests of pupils7
- Avoid unnecessary time pressures in the classroom7
This corroborates with the findings of my study; 33% of pupils said that making maths relate more to real life would reduce their maths anxiety and 28% said that having more time to practice and learn maths would reduce their anxiety.
Overall, it is clear that much more needs to be done in the training of maths teachers regarding maths anxiety, and there is still a long way to go in finding out how maths anxiety can be best dealt with. However, the four points above are small and simple ways that teachers may be able to reduce maths anxiety in the classroom.
Below is a report from the Pearson Power of Maths Roundtable if you are interested in finding out more:
(1) Carey, E., Devine, A., Hill, F., Dowker, A., McLellan, R., & Szucs, D. (2019). Understanding Mathematics Anxiety: Investigating the experiences of UK primary and secondary school students.
(2) Hill, F., Mammarella, I. C., Devine, A., Caviola, S., Passolunghi, M. C., & Szűcs, D. (2016). Maths anxiety in primary and secondary school students: Gender differences, developmental changes and anxiety specificity. Learning and Individual Differences, 48, 45-53.
(3) Shore, K. (2005). Dr. Ken Shore’s classroom problem solvermath anxiety. Retrieved June 30, 2021, from http://www.educationworld.com/a_curr/shore/shore066.shtml
(4) Pearson, (2020). A Guide To Tackling Maths Anxiety. Power of Maths Roundtable. p.https://www.pearson.com/content/dam/one-dot-com/one-dot-com/international-schools/pdfs/covid-19/guide-to-tackling-maths-anxiety-power-maths-report.pdf.
(5) Rossnan, S. (2006). Overcoming math anxiety. Mathitudes, 1(1), 1-4.
(6) Curtain-Phillips, M. (2001). The Causes and Prevention of Math Anxiety.. Retrieved from: https://www.mathgoodies.com/articles/math_anxiety
(7) Woolfolk, A.E. (1995), Educational psychology (6th edition): Allyn and Bacon