Teachers may 'unwittingly contribute to maths anxiety'

More than three-quarters of children with high maths anxiety are average or above achievers in the subject, study shows

Tes Reporter

Teachers and parents could be unwittingly adding to pupils' anxiety about maths, say researchers

Parents, teachers, friends and siblings all play a role in shaping a child's "maths anxiety", new research suggests.

A report published by the Centre for Neuroscience in Education at the University of Cambridge indicates that teachers inadvertently play a role in children developing a negative emotional reaction to maths.

An investigation of 1,700 UK primary and secondary schoolchildren found that a general feeling that maths was more difficult than other subjects often contributed to maths anxiety. Researchers said this could lead to a lack or loss of confidence.

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In interviews, pupils pointed to poor marks or test results, or negative comparisons to peers or siblings, as reasons for feeling anxious about the subject.

Denes Szucs, lead author of the study, said: "While every child's maths anxiety may be different, with unique origins and triggers, we found several common issues among both the primary and secondary school students that we interviewed.”

What causes maths anxiety?

Primary-aged children said they had sometimes been confused by different teaching methods.

Secondary students indicated the move from primary to secondary school had been a cause of maths anxiety, as the work seemed harder and they could not cope.

Dr Szucs said: “Our findings should be of real concern for educators. We should be tackling the problem of maths anxiety now to enable these young people to stop feeling anxious about learning mathematics and give them the opportunity to flourish.

“If we can improve a student’s experience within their maths lessons, we can help lessen their maths anxiety, and, in turn, this may increase their overall maths performance."

There was also greater pressure from tests – in particular, Sats – and an increased homework load.

In a study published in 2018, the researchers showed that more than three-quarters (77 per cent) of children with high maths anxiety were normal-to-high achievers on curriculum maths tests.

The researchers set out a number of recommendations in the report published today.

These include the need for teachers to be conscious that a student's maths anxiety is likely to affect their mathematics performance.

“Teachers, parents, brothers and sisters and classmates can all play a role in shaping a child’s maths anxiety,” co-author Ros McLellan said.

“Parents and teachers should also be mindful of how they may unwittingly contribute to a child’s maths anxiety. Tackling their own anxieties and belief systems in maths might be the first step to helping their children or students.”

In a sample of 1,000 Italian students, the researchers found that girls in both primary and secondary school had higher levels of both maths anxiety and general anxiety.

Josh Hillman, director of education at the Nuffield Foundation, which funded the study, 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."

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