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

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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.”

Pained re­ac­tion

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.

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