The dreaded fear of a maths test resulting in; sweaty palms, increased heart rate and that tight knot feeling inside your stomach. This phenomenon is called ‘maths anxiety’. Researchers say around 20% of our nation suffer from ‘maths anxiety’ (Rubinsten, 2017).
What’s going on? And can it be fixed?
Maths anxiety is as simple as it sounds, a fear of numbers. Robson (2015) states, maths anxiety is a well-studied psychological condition. For many, it can be a constant shadow of fear over their learning. People often assume they are anxious about maths because they are bad at it, however, it is the opposite. They are performing poorly because they are anxious. No wonder students are apprehensive about maths if their mathematical ability is associated with being smart.
People are struggling with basic mathematical skills like mental arithmetic that they had once mastered. Maths anxiety decreases our ‘Working Memory’ also known as Short Term memory. The pressure to solve questions quickly causes stress to build up resulting in it eating up our working memory, leaving less space available to tackle the maths itself (Rubinsten, 2017). Often in maths, the answer is either right or wrong which could also be a cause for you to worry about underperforming.
Where has this seed of fear come from?
Boaler (2016) talks about the myth ‘Maths Brain’. People believe you are either born with a ‘maths brain’ or not. But why have we got this perception towards Mathematics and not towards other subjects such as Geography? She stated, “until we change this single myth we will continue to have underachievement”. Maths anxiety is often a result of the way children are exposed to mathematics by their parents and teachers. Children can sense fear and internalise the way maths is spoken to them, for example: in a negative and unfamiliar way. Teachers with maths anxiety can spread their fear onto the next generations. Children are aware when a teacher is nervous, resulting in them being on the outlook for danger. The stereotypical myth that ‘girls are naturally not very good a maths’ is a cultural expectation which can also be a result of maths anxiety (Robson, 2015). The more anxious you feel about a situation the worse you perform.
As teachers it is very important we change the message children receive in classrooms about mathematics. We want to develop children to have a growth mindset so they believe they can grow and learn anything. We also want to highlight the importance of mistakes as they help your brain to grow by forming new synapsis (Boaler, 2016). Conceptual understanding is vital to mathematical confidence. Understanding the ‘why’ behind a concept is just if not more important than understanding the ‘how’. I believe that this is how we change pupils outlook of mathematics by making sense of the maths being taught. Creativity within maths allows children to explore maths in a unique and interesting way, helping them to approach a problem with more confidence. As professionals, we need to have positive attitudes and mathematical confidence to inspire confidence in all our pupils. To achieve this the children have to first understand the concept being taught, then we build confidence in their understanding before finally building competence through practice (Mason, Burton and Stacey, 2010).
Maybe it is comforting to put a name to the problem ‘Math Anxiety’ but I can assure you there are lots of people around you experiencing very similar feelings, including myself. This anxiety is not a reflection of your ability and can be overcome with time and consciousness. Let’s get rid of this lifelong fear of numbers!
Boaler, J. (2018). How you can be good at math, and other surprising facts about learning | Jo Boaler | TEDxStanford. [online] YouTube. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3icoSeGqQtY [Accessed 18 Oct. 2018].
Mason, J., Burton, L. and Stacey, K. (2010) Thinking Mathematically (2nded.). Harlow: Pearson Education Ltd.
Robson, D. (2018). Do you have ‘maths anxiety’?. [online] Bbc.com. Available at: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20150619-do-you-have-maths-anxiety [Accessed 18 Oct. 2018].
Rubinsten, O. (2018). Why do people get so anxious about math? – Orly Rubinsten. [online] YouTube. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=257&v=7snnRaC4t5c [Accessed 18 Oct. 2018].