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Report Examines Origins and Nature of 'Math Anxiety'

girl with head against blackboard

A new report examines the factors that influence 'math anxiety' among primary and secondary school students, showing 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.

The report was funded by the Nuffield Foundation, with additional support from the James S. McDonnell Foundation.

The U.K. is facing a math 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 U.K. 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 math problem.

"Understanding Mathematics Anxiety: Investigating the Experiences of UK Primary and Secondary School Students," published by the Centre for Neuroscience in Education at the University of Cambridge, explores the nature and resolution of so-called 'mathematics anxiety'.

Origins of Math 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 math anxiety and general anxiety.

More detailed investigation in 1,700 U.K. schoolchildren found that a general feeling that math was more difficult than other subjects often contributed to math 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 math 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," says Denes Szucs from the Department of Psychology, the study's lead author.

Students often discussed the role that their teachers and parents played in their development of math 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 math 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 math ability who experience math anxiety—more than three-quarters (77%) of children with high math anxiety are normal to high achievers on curriculum math tests.

"Because these children perform well at tests, their math anxiety is at high risk of going unnoticed by their teachers and parents, who may only look at performance but not at emotional factors," says Amy Devine, the 2018 study's first author, who now works for Cambridge Assessment English. "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."

However, it is almost certainly the case that in the long term, people with greater math anxiety perform worse than their true math ability. The new report includes a review of existing research literature that shows that this can lead to a vicious circle: math anxiety leading to poorer performance and poorer performance increasing math anxiety.

Higher 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 math anxiety likely affects their mathematics performance. Teachers and parents also need to be aware that their own math anxiety might influence their students' or child's math anxiety and that gendered stereotypes about mathematics suitability and ability might contribute to the gender gap in math performance.

"Teachers, parents, brothers and sisters, and classmates can all play a role in shaping a child's math anxiety," says co-author Ros McLellan from the Faculty of Education. "Parents and teachers should also be mindful of how they may unwittingly contribute to a child's math anxiety. Tackling their own anxieties and belief systems in math might be the first step to helping their children or students."

Additional authors of the new report are Emma Carey, Amy Devine, Francesca Hill, and Ann Dowker.

The researchers say that as math anxiety is present from a young age but may develop as the child grows, further research should be focused on how math anxiety can be best remediated before any strong link with performance begins to emerge.

"Our findings should be of real concern for educators. We should be tackling the problem of math anxiety now to enable these young people to stop feeling anxious about learning mathematics and give them the opportunity to flourish," says Szucs. "If we can improve a student's experience within their math lessons, we can help lessen their math anxiety, and in turn this may increase their overall math performance."

Josh Hillman, Director of Education at the Nuffield Foundation, says: "Mathematical achievement is valuable in its own right, as a foundation for many other subjects and as an important predictor of future academic outcomes, employment opportunities, and even health. Math anxiety can severely disrupt students' performance in the subject in both primary and secondary school. But importantly—and surprisingly—this new research suggests that the majority of students experiencing math anxiety have normal to high math ability. We hope that the report's recommendations will inform the design of school and home-based interventions and approaches to prevent math anxiety developing in the first place."

The researchers worked with more than 2,700 primary and secondary students in the U.K. and Italy to examine both math anxiety and general anxiety, and gain a measure of mathematics performance. They then worked one-to-one with the children to gain a deeper understanding of their cognitive abilities and feelings towards mathematics.

This is the first interview-based study of its kind to compare the mathematics learning experiences of a relatively large sample of students identified as mathematics anxious with similar children that are not mathematics anxious. Although further in-depth studies are needed to substantiate and expand upon this work, the findings indicate that the mathematics classroom is a very different world for children that are mathematics anxious compared to those that are not.


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