Origins and nature of ‘math anxiety’
According to the researchers, the UK is currently facing a maths crisis. According to a 2014 report from National Numeracy, four out of five adults have low functional mathematics skills compared to fewer than half of UK adults having low functional literacy levels.Updated: Mar 19, 2019 10:19 IST
A recent study directed towards examining the factors that influence ‘maths anxiety’ among primary and secondary school students, has shown that teachers and parents may inadvertently play a role in a child’s development of the condition, and that girls tend to be more affected than boys.
According to the researchers, the UK is currently facing a maths crisis. According to a 2014 report from National Numeracy, four out of five adults have low functional mathematics skills compared to fewer than half of UK adults having low functional literacy levels.
While mathematics is often considered a hard subject, not all difficulties with the subject result from cognitive difficulties. Many children and adults experience feelings of anxiety, apprehension, tension or discomfort when confronted by a maths problem.
A report published by the Centre for Neuroscience in Education at the University of Cambridge explores the nature and resolution of so-called ‘mathematics anxiety’.
In a sample of 1,000 Italian students, the researchers found that girls in both primary and secondary school had higher levels of both maths anxiety and general anxiety.
More detailed investigation in 1,700 UK schoolchildren found that a general feeling that maths was more difficult than other subjects often contributed to maths anxiety, leading to a lack or loss of confidence. Students pointed to poor marks or test results, or negative comparisons to peers or siblings as reasons for feeling anxious.
“While every child’s maths anxiety may be different, with unique origins and triggers, we found several common issues among both the primary and secondary school students that we interviewed,” said Denes Szucs, lead author of the study.
Students often discussed the role that their teachers and parents played in their development of maths anxiety. Primary-aged children referred to instances where they had been confused by different teaching methods, while secondary students commented on poor interpersonal relations.
Secondary students indicated that the transition from primary to secondary school had been a cause of maths anxiety, as the work seemed harder and they couldn’t cope. There was also greater pressure from tests - in particular, SATS - and an increased homework load.
In a study published in 2018, the researchers showed that it is not only children with low maths ability who experience maths anxiety - more than three-quarters (77%) of children with high maths anxiety are normal to high achievers on curriculum maths tests.
“Because these children perform well at tests, their maths anxiety is at high risk of going unnoticed by their teachers and parents, who may only look at performance but not at emotional factors. But their anxiety may keep these students away from STEM fields for life when in fact they would be perfectly able to perform well in these fields.” said Amy Devine, lead researcher of the study.
However, it is almost certainly the case that in the long term, people with greater maths anxiety perform worse than their true maths ability. Today’s report includes a review of existing research literature that shows that this can lead to a vicious circle: maths anxiety leading to poorer performance and poorer performance increasing maths anxiety.
The researchers set out a number of recommendations in the report. These include the need for teachers to be conscious that an individual’s maths anxiety likely affects their mathematics performance. Teachers and parents also need to be aware that their own maths anxiety might influence their students’ or child’s maths anxiety and that gendered stereotypes about mathematics suitability and ability might contribute to the gender gap in maths performance.
“Teachers, parents, brothers and sisters and classmates can all play a role in shaping a child’s maths anxiety. Parents and teachers should also be mindful of how they may unwittingly contribute to a child’s maths anxiety. Tackling their own anxieties and belief systems in maths might be the first step to helping their children or students,” added co-author Ros McLellan.
The researchers say that as maths anxiety is present from a young age but may develop as the child grows, further research should be focused on how maths anxiety can be best remediated before any strong link with performance begins to emerge.