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

Does playing chess improve maths ability?

An article published in Learning & Behavior examines whether learning to play chess can help improve children’s mathematical ability. To test this hypothesis, Giovanni Sala and Fernand Gobet, from the University of Liverpool, conducted two studies with primary school children in schools in Italy.

The first experiment involved 233 children from eight schools (mean age = 8.5 years). The experimental group (N=53) attended 25 hours of chess lessons during school hours (although not necessarily during maths lessons), along with regular school activities, and were then given a test to assess their mathematical ability and a questionnaire to assess their metacognitive ability. The results were compared to both an active control group (who were similarly taught to play draughts) and a passive control group (who continued with regular school activities). The results showed no significant difference between the three groups in mathematical or metacognitive ability.

For the second experiment, 52 children (mean age = 9.32 years) in three classes of a primary school in Italy participated. Classes were randomly assigned to the three experimental conditions, but this time the active control group learned the game of Go instead of draughts, and both the chess and Go instruction replaced some of the time originally dedicated to learning maths (approximately 15 hours). The results showed no significant effects of learning chess on mathematical ability. Children in the passive control group seemed to benefit slightly more than those learning chess or Go. There was no difference between the three experimental groups on metacognitive ability.

The study concludes that the results of the two experiments do not support the hypothesis that learning chess benefits children’s mathematical ability. The effects of chess, if any, appear to be minimal and too limited to provide any educational advantage over traditional teaching methods.

Source: Does chess instruction improve mathematical problem-solving ability? Two experimental studies with an active control group (June 2017), Learning & Behavior doi:10.3758/s13420-017-0280-3

Does the KiVa anti-bullying programme work?

A study in Prevention Science evaluates the effectiveness of the KiVa anti-bullying programme in Italy through a randomised controlled trial of students in grades 4 and 6 (equivalent to Years 5 and 7). The sample involved 2,042 students across 13 schools that were randomly assigned to intervention (KiVa) or control (usual school provision) conditions. The Italian school system is divided into primary school (grades 1–5), middle school (grades 6–8), and secondary school (grades 9–14), so only schools which had both primary and middle schools were included.

KiVa is a research-based anti-bullying programme developed by the University of Turku, Finland. It is a schoolwide intervention that is focused on the bystanders’ reactions to a bullying situation, which assist and reinforce the bully, and aims to change their attitudes and behaviours.

Researchers Annalaura Nocentini and Ersilia Menesini considered different outcomes (bullying, victimisation, pro-bullying attitudes, pro-victim attitudes, empathy toward victims), analyses, and estimates of effectiveness in order to compare the Italian results with those from other countries. Multilevel models showed significant results for KiVa for all outcomes and analyses in grade 4. In grade 6, KiVa also reduced bullying, victimisation, and pro-bullying attitudes, but the effects were smaller as compared to grade 4, although still significant. The results also showed that the odds of being a victim were 1.93 times higher for a control student than for a KiVa student in grade 4. Overall, their findings provide evidence of the effectiveness of the programme in Italy.

Source: KiVa Anti-Bullying Program in Italy: Evidence of Effectiveness in a Randomized Control Trial (2016), Prevention Science, 17(8)

Early oral competence linked to literacy

A new article published in the British Journal of Educational Psychology describes a three-year longitudinal study exploring the predictive relationship between oral narrative competence at age 5/6 and written narrative competence during the following two years.

A total of 80 Italian children participated in the study. They were followed for three years and tested three times:
  • Oral production was assessed at the end of the first year of the study, when the children were at the end of the equivalent of Year 1. This was in terms of narrative competence (cohesion, coherence, and structure).
  • Written production was assessed at the end of the equivalent of Year 2 in terms of narrative competence (cohesion, coherence, and structure) and orthographic competence (spelling).
  • Written production was assessed at the end of the equivalent of Year 3 in terms of narrative competence (cohesion, coherence, and structure).
Overall, the study demonstrated that oral narrative competence in Year 1 predicted written narrative competence in the following two years, with orthographic competence (spelling) playing a relevant mediating role.
The authors conclude that their results suggest the importance of practising oral narrative competence in Year 1 and Year 2 and the value of composition quality independent of orthographic text accuracy.
Source: The Relationship Between Oral and Written Narratives: A Three-year Longitudinal Study of Narrative Cohesion, Coherence, and Structure (2015), British Journal of Educational Psychology, 85(4).