Understanding maths anxiety

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. Research conducted by the Centre for Neuroscience in Education at the University of Cambridge examined the maths performance of more than 2,700 primary and secondary pupils in the UK and Italy who were screened for maths anxiety and general anxiety. Researchers then worked one-to-one with the children in order to gain deeper understanding of their cognitive abilities and feelings towards maths using a series of cognitive tasks, questionnaires, and interviews.

Emma Carey and colleagues found that a general feeling that maths was more difficult than other subjects often contributed to feelings of anxiety about the subject, and that teachers and parents may inadvertently play a role. Girls in both primary and secondary school were found to have higher levels of both maths anxiety and general anxiety.

Pupils indicated poor test results, or negative comparisons to peers or siblings, as reasons for feeling anxious. Secondary school pupils also indicated that the transition from primary to secondary school was a cause of maths anxiety, as the work seemed harder and there was greater pressure on tests and increased homework.

The report sets out a series of recommendations, including:

  • Teachers should be aware that maths anxiety can affect pupils’ maths performance.
  • Teachers and parents need to be aware that their own maths anxiety might influence pupils’ math anxiety.
  • Teachers and parents also need to be aware that gendered stereotypes about maths ability might contribute to the gender gap in maths performance.
  • Reducing classroom pressure and using methods like free writing about emotions before a test could help to alleviate maths anxiety.

Source: Understanding mathematics anxiety: Investigating the experiences of UK primary and secondary school students (March 2019), Centre for Neuroscience in Education, University of Cambridge

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