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

Parent-teacher meetings and pupil outcomes

Engaging parents in their children’s education, both at home and at school, can be an effective and low-cost way of improving learning outcomes for pupils. A study published in European Economic Review examines whether academic achievement can be improved by increasing parental involvement through scheduled parent-teacher meetings.

Asad Islam conducted the randomised controlled trial in schools in two southern districts of Bangladesh. Seventy-six primary schools were chosen randomly from more than 200 in these regions, with 40 schools randomly allocated to the intervention group and 36 to the control group. Pupils in these schools all came from low socioeconomic backgrounds, and a quarter of parents did not complete primary school.

The intervention involved monthly face-to-face meetings between parents and teachers over a period of two academic years. At each 15-minute meeting, teachers discussed with parents their child’s academic progress and provided them with a report card for their child. Pupil achievement outcomes were measured using standardised test scores.

Overall, test scores of pupils in the intervention schools increased by 0.26 standard deviations (SD) in the first year, and 0.38 SD by the end of the second year of the intervention. The study also found that pupils in the intervention schools had made improvements in their reading and writing abilities and general knowledge. Parents who attended the parent-teacher meetings reported that they felt encouraged to spend more time at home helping children study or do homework. Both parents and teachers also reported improved attitudes in the behaviour and confidence of their children.

Source: Parent–teacher meetings and student outcomes: Evidence from a developing country (January 2019), European Economic Review, Volume 111

Which character strengths lead to good achievement?

An article previously published in Frontiers in Psychology by Lisa Wagner and Willibald Ruch reported on two studies conducted with 179 primary pupils from three schools, and 199 secondary pupils from four schools in Switzerland to examine whether character strengths are important to school success for primary and secondary pupils.

The authors measured character strengths by the Value in Action Inventory of Strengths for Youth (VIA-Youth,) and positive classroom behaviours with the Classroom Behavior Rating Scale (CBRS), which cover positive achievement-related behaviour and positive social behaviour. For primary pupils, achievement was obtained by teacher ratings; for secondary pupils, the schools’ administration offices provided their grades. The findings showed that:

  • Perseverance, prudence, hope, social intelligence and self-regulation were positively related to positive classroom behaviour for both primary and secondary pupils.
  • Perseverance, prudence, hope, love of learning, perspective, zest and gratitude were positively related to school achievement for both primary and secondary pupils.
  • Perseverance, prudence and hope were associated with both positive classroom behaviour and school achievement across primary and secondary sectors.

According to the authors, these findings indicate there is a rather distinct set of strengths most relevant in schools. The authors also suggest that further research could explore whether teachers and pupils value these strengths.

Source: Good character at school: positive classroom behavior mediates the link between character strengths and school achievement (May 2015), Frontiers in Psychology, Volume 6    

Positive effects of a healthy debate

Johns Hopkins University’s Daniel Shackelford has conducted the first quantitative study examining the effects of participation in an extracurricular debate club during pre-adolescence on pupils’ later academic and engagement outcomes, including entry to selective-entrance high schools.

Dr Shackelford examined a 10-year sample of 2,263 4th to 8th grade pupils (Year 5 to Year 9) participating in Baltimore City’s Baltimore Urban Debate League (BUDL) between the 2004 to 2013 school years, comparing their standardised maths and reading scores, attendance, and entry to selective-entrance high schools to 81,906 peers who did not participate in BUDL. Ninety-one percent of both groups were African American, and 96% of both groups received free and reduced-price lunch.

It is of note that these two groups were not matched at baseline: pupils who became debaters differed from controls prior to their participation in BUDL, with higher standardised test scores and attendance, so no true causal conclusion can be drawn from comparing groups. Yet among the debate pupils themselves, results showed that pre-adolescent debate participation yielded more than a 6% increase in reading scores and a 4% increase in maths scores on standardised testing. While debate inherently involves reading and might be accountable for increased reading achievement, Dr Shackelford observes that debaters were 10% more likely not to be chronically absent than non-debaters, and this increased engagement in school may have yielded the improvements in maths scores. BUDL pupils were also more likely to attend a selective high school (+0.12) or selective career tech high school (+0.01) than to attend a traditional high school.

Source: The BUDL effect: Examining academic achievement and engagement outcomes of preadolescent Baltimore Urban Debate League participants (February 2019), Educational Researcher. 

The role of the teacher during collaborative learning

A systematic review of the role of the teacher during collaborative learning in primary and secondary education suggests that several types of teacher guidance can be positive. However, the challenge for the teacher is to support interaction between pupils without taking control of the moments in which opportunities to learn arise for pupils.

The review, carried out by Anouschka van Leeuwen and Jeroen Janssen, included both qualitative and quantitative studies (n=66) conducted in primary and secondary schools, and looked at the relationship between the teacher’s role and the processes and outcomes of collaboration among pupils.

The authors found that feedback, prompting, questioning and transferring control of the learning process to pupils were all effective strategies for collaborative learning. The review concludes that when guiding collaborative learning, teachers should try to not only focus on the content of the task, but also on how pupils approach the task and the strategies they use for collaboration, and should let pupils know that help is available without imposing this help.

Source: A systematic review of teacher guidance during collaborative learning in primary and secondary education (February 2019), Educational Research Review, volume 27

The effects of self-assessment

An article published in Educational Research Review examines the effects of self-assessment on self-regulated learning (SRL) and self-efficacy in four meta-analyses.

To understand the impact of pupils’ assessment of their own work, Ernesto Panadero and colleagues from Spain analysed 19 studies comprised of 2,305 pupils from primary schools to higher education. The meta-analyses only included studies published in English that contained empirical results of self-assessment interventions in relation to SRL and/or self-efficacy, had at least one control group, and had been peer-reviewed.

The findings indicated that:

  • Self-assessment had a positive effect on SRL strategies serving a positive self-regulatory function for pupils’ learning, such as meta-cognitive strategies (effect size= +0.23).
  • Self-assessment had a negative effect on “Negative SRL”, which is associated with negative emotions and stress and is thought to be adverse to pupils’ learning (effect size=-0.65).
  • Self-assessment was also positively associated with SRL even when SRL was measured qualitatively (effect size = +0.43).
  • Self-assessment had a positive effect on self-efficacy (effect size= +0.73), the effect being larger for girls.

The authors suggest that self-assessment is necessary for productive learning but note that the results have yet to identify the most effective self-assessment components (eg, monitoring, feedback, and revision) in fostering SRL strategies or self-efficacy.

Source: Effects of self-assessment on self-regulated learning and self-efficacy: Four meta-analyses (November 2017), Educational Research Review, Volume 22.