Emma Bowers’ Year 7 maths class are sitting a test. She sets them off and soon everyone is scribbling away.
All except Ajit*. Bowers knows Ajit is capable of tackling many of the problems set. Yet his hands remain frozen on the desk, paralysed by fear of what’s in front of him.
This is the power of maths anxiety.
“I’ve had kids who have looked at a test paper and won’t even attempt a single question because they are so terrified of getting it wrong, they can’t even look at it,” says Bowers, head of maths at The Bushey Academy in Bushey, Hertfordshire.
“The paper would be swimming in front of their eyes.”
Maths anxiety is described as “a debilitating emotional reaction to mathematics” by Cambridge University’s Centre for Neuroscience in Education, which notes that the phenomenon is “increasingly recognised in psychology and education”. Accordingly, it is an active field of research, the recent and ongoing findings of which are pertinent to policymakers and all teachers, not just maths specialists.
So what is the research telling us and what should teachers do about it?
It is very difficult to find estimates of the proportion of pupils affected by maths anxiety, although University of Chicago academic Alana Foley points to research that suggests it might be as much as a quarter of university students and 80 per cent of college students in the US. Her postdoctoral colleague Julianne Herts says: “Although there are many studies looking at math anxiety in children, I don’t know of any that set out to determine a prevalence rate.”
The importance of maths anxiety can be emphasised, if not by the number of people affected, then by the effect it has on them. This includes the very real distress caused.
“You can actually see brain-activation patterns that are consistent with pain when people who self-report math anxiety are exposed to the thought of math or do math,” explains Foley.
Bowers points to the associated behavioural problems that follow: “Maths anxiety manifests itself in bad behaviour. It’s quite hard for a kid to say ‘I find this difficult’, so they often just play up.”
Other teachers cite truanting – not just from maths classes, but of whole school days missed. And researchers emphasise the potential for a long-term effect, including an influence on pupils’ choices of career in later life.
And a key thing to understand is that maths anxiety does not strike only those with low mathematical ability. Here, things get theoretically tricky because a link has been made between maths anxiety and maths performance.
As Herts puts it: “There are people who are suffering from poor math performance and math anxiety, and so it can be hard to disentangle those two things.
“I think we have pretty good evidence that they are separate phenomena, but it can be hard to communicate that.”
Teachers will see and understand the conundrum in practice. For example, Declan Gane, Year 6 teacher and maths coordinator at St Stephen’s CE Primary School in Shepherd’s Bush, London, explains: “I have a girl in my class this year and she can do it – but as soon as she sees the numbers, it’s automatically a bit of a switch-off.”
In fact, maths anxiety in high-performing students is associated with a larger drop in maths performance than in lower-performing students, according to a paper co-authored by Herts and Foley, published in February.
The academic study used data from the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), which tests 15-year-olds’ academic achievement in different countries worldwide, to quantify the correlation between maths anxiety and performance. The conclusion?
“A one-unit increase in the Pisa math-anxiety index for a given student corresponds to a 29-point decrease in his or her math score,” say the authors.
The increase in maths anxiety was associated with a larger decrease in performance for students at the 90th percentile in maths performance than those at the 10th percentile. Herts, Foley and their co-authors conclude: “Students with higher potential to succeed in math are at greater risk of not reaching their full potential if they are math-anxious.”
The question, though, is this: does maths anxiety lead to poor maths performance, or does poor maths performance lead to maths anxiety? The answer could help us to tackle the problems or, as Cambridge researchers said in a paper published in January last year: “The question is not trivial, since it should feed directly into educational policy.”
That paper was aptly titled The chicken or the egg? The evidence is mixed, but this and Herts and Foley’s paper, among others, lend support to the idea that the answer might be both. In the research, this is referred to as a bidirectional relationship or, more pragmatically, a vicious cycle.
Setting a bad example
Breaking the cycle requires an understanding of what else contributes to maths anxiety – and that it might, at least in part, be you, the teacher. Teachers’ maths anxiety has been shown to affect pupils’ maths performance; one paper from Herts and Foley’s department found that this was particularly true of female primary teachers and girls.
“I worry about the lack of mathematical specialists in primary schools,” says one secondary school maths teacher who wished to remain anonymous. “I have no proof for this, but there seem to be a lot more English specialists than maths specialists. The anxieties of non-specialists or an inability to engage the students in the subject means that pupils are turned off from maths.”
You’re not off the hook if you’re a secondary teacher of a subject other than maths since, as Bowers points out, “numeracy is cross-curricular now”. The anonymous teacher, a former head of numeracy, says: “I have seen staff go white if they have to answer a maths question, and skip over mathematical parts of courses, as they do not feel comfortable with it. This anxiety from staff is passed on to students, as well as students thinking that the teacher has done okay without it, so they will as well.”
Bowers feels strongly that all teachers should be better educated about the problem of maths anxiety. They should also be made aware of how they can transmit their own anxiety to pupils, as well as told the appropriate type of language to use.
“One really easy thing that teachers can do is to try not to say blatantly negative things about math, which sometimes they do, we all do, you know: I’m bad at math, math is hard,” advises Herts. “Things like that can come up and send a message to the children that there’s something particularly bad or difficult about math.”
Of course, parents are also guilty of making such comments; another piece of research by Herts and Foley’s colleagues found that pupils of maths-anxious parents who helped with their homework learned less maths and had more maths anxiety by the end of the school year.
Gane says: “You definitely do get parents who are saying [to their children], ‘Ooh, I’m rubbish at maths’, and that simple phrase almost allows the pupils to say ‘Well, if mum and dad are rubbish at it, then I can be rubbish at it, too’.”
Bowers is “relentless” about challenging such comments from parents, she says, and The Bushey Academy holds a parents’ maths evening to tackle them.
“All the parents come in and we talk to them about these kinds of issues, and we say how damaging it is to say those things to children,” she explains. “It’s about educating them in the language they should be using because I think they often don’t see how damaging it is.”
Herts and Foley continue to explore different avenues of research, including finding more detail about how maths anxiety is transmitted from teachers and parents; they hope that this might feed into practice. It’s a complex area – with the causes difficult to pinpoint. Foley says she is hopeful of practical solutions emerging. “Researchers who are in the field of teacher education can then use findings from some of those next steps to determine the best way to get that message to teachers, and maybe the parents through teachers,” she says.
First and foremost, and until solid causes and solutions are offered, they are keen to raise awareness of maths anxiety in the hope that it leads to action. It is too easy, say many in the field, to dismiss maths anxiety as “made up” or an “excuse not to do maths”.
Seeing it as a real issue is the biggest leap to beginning to address it, says Gane: “We need to take it seriously, in the first instance. This is very important.”
*Not pupil’s real name
Jennifer Richardson is a journalist and lecturer at Kingston University. She tweets @JournoJennifer
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