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
- Reducing classroom pressure and using methods
like free writing about emotions before a test could help to alleviate maths
Source: Understanding mathematics
anxiety: Investigating the experiences of UK primary and secondary school
students (March 2019), Centre for
Neuroscience in Education, University of Cambridge
A study published in Contemporary Educational Psychology suggests that the relationship between test anxiety and performance in high-stakes tests is positive, but the relationship varies for pupils with different achievement levels.
Yao-Ting Sung and
colleagues at the National Taiwan University used data from 1,931 Taiwanese
ninth grade (Year 10) pupils from 37 schools. The Basic Competence Test
(BCTEST) was used to benchmark their achievement. The BCTEST is a high-stakes
test for Taiwan junior-high school pupils, determining to which high schools
with different levels of prestige and tuition fees they will be admitted.
Subjects in the test included Mandarin, English, mathematics, social studies, science
and writing. Test anxiety was measured by the examination stress scale.
- The overall relationship between text-anxiety and learning achievement in high-stakes testing was positive (r =+0.18).
- Lower levels of test-anxiety were found among high-achievement and low-achievement pupils while higher levels of test-anxiety were found among moderate-achievement pupils.
- For higher achievement pupils, the relationship between text-anxiety and achievement in high-stakes testing was found to be negative (r = -0.16), while for the group of pupils with lower achievement, a positive relationship was found (r= +0.22).
Source: Reexamining the relationship between test anxiety and
learning achievement: An individual-differences perspective (July 2016), Contemporary Educational Pyschology, Volume
A maths app may help eliminate the negative association between parents’ maths anxiety and children’s maths achievement in early elementary (primary) school, according to a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology.
The researchers tracked the maths achievement of 587 pupils
from 40 classrooms in the Chicago area from first to third grade (Year 2 to 4).
In the first grade, pupils and their families were randomly assigned tablets
loaded with either a maths app or a similar reading app.
Parents were also given a questionnaire to complete in order to assess a variety of attitudes and behaviours related to maths and reading. Maths anxiety was measured using the Mathematical Anxiety Rating Scale. At the end of the first grade, parents were given a second survey to complete. Children’s maths achievement was measured using the applied problems subset of a nationally-standardised test.
By the end of third grade (Year 4), children of maths-anxious
parents who were in the reading app control group had learned less maths than
children of parents with no maths anxiety; learning the equivalent of
approximately five fewer months of maths. However, this was not the case for
children in the maths app intervention group, and children with maths-anxious
parents showed the same maths progress as pupils with parents who had no maths
These results suggest that parents’ maths anxiety is
negatively associated with children’s maths achievement in early elementary
school, and that the decreased negative association observed in the
intervention group is due in part to a change in parents’ attitudes. The
researchers conclude that when families used the app together, parents’
attitudes toward maths changed and they were able to disassociate their own
maths anxiety from their children’s ability in maths.
Disassociating the relation between parents’ math anxiety and children’s math
achievement: Long-term effects of a math app intervention (December 2018), Journal of Experimental Psychology: General,
A study conducted by researchers at the University of Jaén, Spain, and published in the British Journal of Educational Psychology looks at the relationship between maths anxiety and maths performance in primary school children, and also the possible mediating role of working memory and maths self-concept.
A total of 167 pupils in grades 3 and 5 (age 8–12 years) took part in the study. Each pupil completed a set of questionnaires to assess maths anxiety and self-concept as well as their mathematical performance. Working memory was assessed using two backward span tasks. Teachers were also asked to rate each pupils’ maths achievement.
As expected, results showed that pupils who demonstrated higher levels of anxiety about maths tended to have lower scores on maths outcomes such as ability, problem‐solving and teacher‐rated maths achievement. However, this relationship was lessened once the effects of working memory and self-concept were considered. The researchers suggest, therefore, that it is worth taking into consideration working memory and self-concept when designing interventions aimed at helping pupils with maths anxiety.
Source: Math anxiety and math performance in children: The mediating roles of working memory and math self‐concept (May 2017), British Journal of Educational Psychology, Volume 87, Issue 4
A study published in The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry examines whether a half-hour, self-administered, single-session intervention (SSI) teaching growth mindset can reduce depression and anxiety and strengthen perceived control in high-risk teenagers.
Teenagers (aged 12–15) and their parents completed separate baseline questionnaires about the young person’s anxiety and depressive symptoms, which were then repeated over a nine-month follow-up period. Teenagers also reported on their perceived behavioural control. The teenagers were then randomised to receive either a 30-minute computer-guided intervention teaching growth mindset (the belief that personality is malleable), or a supportive therapy control.
Compared to the control group, teenagers who received the SSI had greater improvements in parent-reported depression (effect size = +0.60) and anxiety (+0.28), as well as self-reported depression (+0.32) and perceived behavioural control (+0.29) from baseline to nine-month follow-up. The effects of the intervention on self-reported anxiety were +0.36.
The report concludes that the findings suggest a promising, scalable SSI for reducing anxiety and depression in high-risk teenagers.
Source: A single-session growth mindset intervention for adolescent anxiety and depression: 9-month outcomes of a randomized trial (September 2017), The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry
Mathematics anxiety (MA) is the state of discomfort around the performance of mathematical tasks. Does MA cause poor performance in mathematics, or is it poor performance in mathematics that causes MA? The question is important, because it affects the “treatment” that results. Should the focus be on improving students’ confidence, or their maths ability?
A review in Frontiers in Psychology considers the evidence supporting the two models – The Deficit Theory, which claims that poor performance leads to high anxiety, or The Debilitating Anxiety Theory, which claims that anxiety reduces performance by affecting the pre-processing, processing, and retrieval of information.
The evidence is conflicting – there is research to support the Deficit Theory, with the strongest evidence coming from longitudinal studies and studies of mathematical disabilities. Similarly, there is support for the Debilitating Anxiety Model from studies across all ages that have manipulated anxiety to reveal either a deterioration or improvement in performance. The paper considers that this is indicative of a Reciprocal Theory, where MA and poor performance reinforce each other in a vicious cycle. This in turn suggests that interventions to address MA should target both the anxiety and mathematics performance.
Source: The Chicken or the Egg? The Direction of the Relationship Between Mathematics Anxiety and Mathematics Performance (2016), Frontiers in Psychology.