Banish maths anxiety and get pupils diving in to your lessons
The debilitating cold dread that engulfs students faced with mathematical questions in class is more common than you might think – and teachers and parents may be the root cause, finds Jennifer Richardson
Emma Bowers’ Year 7 maths class are sitting a test. She sets them off and soon everyone is scribbling away. All except Ajit*. Bowers knows Ajit is capable of tackling many of the problems set. Yet his hands remain frozen on the desk, paralysed by fear of what’s in front of him. This is the power of maths anxiety.
“I’ve had kids who have looked at a test paper and won’t even attempt a single question because they are so terrified of getting it wrong, they can’t even look at it,” says Bowers, head of maths at The Bushey Academy in Bushey, Hertfordshire.
“The paper would be swimming in front of their eyes.”
Maths anxiety is described as “a debilitating emotional reaction to mathematics” by Cambridge University’s Centre for Neuroscience in Education, which notes that the phenomenon is “increasingly recognised in psychology and education”. Accordingly, it is an active field of research, the recent and ongoing findings of which are pertinent to policymakers and all teachers, not just maths specialists.
So what is the research telling us and what should teachers do about it?
It is very difficult to find estimates of the proportion of pupils affected by maths anxiety, although University of Chicago academic Alana Foley points to research that suggests it might be as much as a quarter of university students and 80 per cent of college students in the US. Her postdoctoral colleague Julianne Herts says: “Although there are many studies looking at math anxiety in children,
I don’t know of any that set out to determine a prevalence rate.”
The importance of maths anxiety can be emphasised, if not by the number of people affected, then by the effect it has on them. This includes the very real distress caused.
“You can actually see brain-activation patterns that are consistent with pain when people who self-report math anxiety are exposed to the thought of math or do math,” explains Foley.
Bowers points to the associated behavioural problems that follow: “Maths anxiety manifests itself in bad behaviour. It’s quite hard for a kid to say ‘I find this difficult’, so they often just play up.”
Other teachers cite truanting – not just from maths classes, but of whole school days missed. And researchers emphasise the potential for a long-term effect, including an influence on pupils’ choices of career in later life.
And a key thing to understand is that maths anxiety does not strike only those with low mathematical ability. Here, things get theoretically tricky because a link has been made between maths anxiety and maths performance.
As Herts puts it: “There are people who are suffering from poor math performance and math anxiety, and so it can be hard to disentangle those two things.