‘Maths anxiety’ - feelings of apprehension, tension or discomfort experienced when performing mathematics or in a mathematical context - may be affecting the achievement of many children, according to a new report. The report, Understanding Mathematics Anxiety, has been published by the Centre for Neuroscience in Education at the University of Cambridge, and was funded by the Nuffied Foundation with additional support from the James S McDonnell Foundation. Researchers worked with around 2700 primary and secondary students in the UK and Italy to examine both mathematical anxiety and general anxiety, and gain a measure of mathematics performance. They then worked one-to-one with the children to gain a deeper understanding of their cognitive abilities and feelings towards mathematics.

Among their findings was that and that, unlike other forms of anxiety, maths anxiety increases with age. Among the triggers for maths anxiety were poor marks, teasing by other pupils and being confused by a mix of different teaching methods. Secondary students indicated that the transition from primary to secondary school had been a cause of maths anxiety, as the work seemed harder and they couldn’t cope. There was also a general feeling among students that maths was hard compared to other subjects. However, when comparing mathematically anxious children to those without maths anxiety, they found that the two groups had not generally had objectively different experiences. Rather, the researchers suggest, the difference between mathematically anxious and non-anxious children comes from their subjective interpretation of their experiences.

The report concludes that maths anxiety may currently be a significant factor in suppressing maths performance in many children and ultimately keeping them away from maths related careers. In a previous study published last year the researchers found that 77 per cent of children with high maths anxiety were normal to high achievers on curriculum maths tests. ‘Because these children perform well at tests, their maths anxiety is at high risk of going unnoticed by their teachers and parents, who may only look at performance but not at emotional factors,’ said Dr Amy Devine, the 2018 study’s first author, ‘But their anxiety may keep these students away from STEM fields for life when in fact they would be perfectly able to perform well in these fields.’

Among the recommendations made by the report are that teachers and parents should be aware that their own maths anxiety may influence their student or child’s maths anxiety. Teachers should also be conscious that an individual’s maths anxiety likely affects their mathematics performance, even among to normal to high achievers. The researchers also warn of the potential damage if the myth that mathematical ability is fixed or innate is allowed to persist, instead recommending a ‘growth mindset’. They suggest that teacher training should clearly highlight the role of both cognitive and affective factors in maths learning in schools, and call for further research to focus on how maths anxiety can be tackled before any strong link with performance begins to emerge, preventing a vicious cycle of poor performance leading to increased anxiety.

Commenting on the report, Josh Hillman, director of education at the Nuffield Foundation said ‘Maths anxiety can severely disrupt students’ performance in the subject in both primary and secondary school. But importantly - and surprisingly - this new research suggests that the majority of students experiencing maths anxiety have normal to high maths ability. We hope that the report’s recommendations will inform the design of school and home-based interventions and approaches to prevent maths anxiety developing in the first place.’

Understanding Mathematics Anxiety report: https://tinyurl.com/y5tnz9n6 

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