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 school entry age matter?

In the UK, children usually start primary school in the academic year in which they turn five. However, because entry rules vary across local authorities, some schools may defer entry for children born later in the year until the second or third term.

A new study at University College London looks at what impact an earlier versus later entry into Reception has on pupils’ cognitive and non-cognitive skills up until age 11 (their final year of primary school).

Christian Dustmann and Thomas Cornelissen analysed information on more than 400,000 children born in 2000-01 who attended state schools in England and whose records are included in the National Pupil Database. This was combined with information on more than 7,000 children born in 2000-01 who took part in the Millennium Cohort study.

The researchers found that receiving an extra month of schooling before age five increases test scores in language and numeracy at ages five and seven by about 6–11%. But by age 11, the effects on test scores have largely disappeared. For boys from low socioeconomic backgrounds, the benefits of an earlier school entry are even greater. An additional term of schooling before age five reduces the achievement gap between boys from low and high socioeconomic backgrounds at age seven by 60-80%.

Source: Early school exposure, test scores, and noncognitive outcomes (March 2019), CReAM Discussion Paper Series CDP 03/19, Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration

Ethnic minority pupils disproportionately identified with special educational needs

Pupils from ethnic minority groups are over-represented for some types of special educational needs (SEN) and under-represented for other types compared to white British pupils, according to new research led by Steve Strand and Ariel Lindorff at the University of Oxford.

Using data from the England National Pupil Database from 2005–2016, the report looks at all children age five to 16 in England who have been identified with different types of SEN. As well as identifying ethnic disproportionality, the report also considered whether socio-economic factors, such as poverty and neighbourhood deprivation, or children’s early attainment, had any impact on pupils being identified as having SEN.

The key findings of the report suggest:

  • Black Caribbean and mixed white and black Caribbean pupils are twice as likely to be identified with social, emotional and mental health needs as white British pupils.
  • Asian pupils are half as likely to be identified with autistic spectrum disorders as white British pupils.
  • Indian and Chinese pupils are half as likely to be identified with moderate learning difficulties as white British pupils.

While similar research has been done in the US, it is the first time a study with this detail has been conducted in the UK.

Source: Ethnic disproportionality in the identification of special educational needs (SEN) in England: Extent, causes and consequences (December 2018), University of Oxford

Positive results for early years maths apps

A randomised controlled trial of two new maths apps to support young children’s early maths development has shown positive results. The apps, “Maths 3–5” and “Maths 4–6”, are based on core mathematical concepts in number and shape, and space and measure, which are covered in the Early Years Foundation Stage, and also start to introduce children to topics covered in Key Stage 1.

Laura Outhwaite and colleagues conducted the randomised controlled trial of the apps with 389 children aged 4–5 years from 12 schools in the UK. The trial took place over 12 weeks in the last weeks of their Reception school year before pupils moved to Key Stage 1. Pupils were randomised to either use the apps in addition to standard maths teaching activities (treatment); use the apps instead of a regular small group-based maths activity (time-equivalent treatment), or continue with usual maths teaching activities (control).

The results showed that pupils in the treatment group made more progress on standardised assessments of maths performance over 12 weeks than pupils in the control group (effect size = +0.31). Similarly, pupils in the time-equivalent treatment made more progress in maths performance than pupils in the control group (effect size = +0.21). There was no significant difference in maths performance between pupils in the two treatment groups (effect size = +0.08).

A randomised controlled trial of apps developed for primary children in Malawi, which we covered in a previous issue of Best Evidence in Brief, also showed positive results for maths achievement.

Source: Raising early achievement in math with interactive apps: A randomized control trial (February 2019), Journal of Educational Psychology, 111(2)

No impact for sleep education pilot

An evaluation of a pilot of Teensleep, a sleep education programme that aims to improve outcomes for pupils by improving the quality of their sleep, found no evidence that the programme led to improvements in pupils’ sleep.

The Teensleep programme trains teachers to promote good ‘sleep hygiene’ as part of pupils’ Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) lessons. Teachers deliver a series of 10 half-hour lessons highlighting the importance of sleep for effective learning, as well as providing practical advice for better sleep, such as avoiding caffeine in the evening.

Ten UK secondary schools took part in the pilot funded by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) and the Wellcome Trust. All Year 10 pupils received the intervention as delivered by their teachers and completed a sleep quiz and sleep survey pre- and post-intervention. Parents and pupils were informed about the pilot study and parents could opt out of schools sharing pupils’ data with the research team, but not out of pupil participation in the intervention.

Overall, the evaluation found there was no evidence that Teensleep improved pupils’ sleep as measured using a wrist-worn activity monitor before and after the intervention. However, the evaluation did find some evidence of improvements to sleep-related behaviour as reported by pupils, such as napping less during the daytime.

Source: Teensleep: Pilot report and executive summary (February 2019) Education Endowment Foundation

The effect of a World Cup on pupils’ effort and achievement

A study published in the Journal of Public Economics examines how leisure time can impact pupils’ effort and educational achievement by looking at the overlap of major football tournaments (the FIFA World Cup and the UEFA European Championship) with GCSE exams in England.

Using seven years of subject data on pupils in England, taken from the National Pupil Database, Robert Metcalfe and colleagues estimated the overall effect of a tournament by comparing within-pupil variation in performance during the exam period between tournament and non-tournament years.

Overall, they found a negative average effect of the tournament on exam performance, as measured by whether pupils achieved a grade C or higher in at least 5 subjects at GCSE. In tournament years, the odds of achieving the benchmark of a grade C or higher in at least 5 subjects fell by 12%. For pupils who are likely to be very interested in football (defined as likely to be white, male, disadvantaged pupils), the impact is greater, with the odds of achieving the benchmark reduced by 28%. This result is important as this group is already the lowest performing, with only 21.3% achieving a grade C or higher in at least 5 subjects at GCSE in non-tournament years.

An earlier study reported in a previous issue of Best Evidence in Brief also found that some pupils perform less well in their GCSEs in years when there is a major international football tournament taking place.

Source: Students’ effort and educational achievement: Using the timing of the World Cup to vary the value of leisure (January 2019), Journal of Public Economics, Volume 172