Many of us will be familiar with the shear panic, the sweaty palms, the headaches and the confusion that comes alongside attempting mathematical problems but not many will be aware that this is a diagnosable condition and is extremely prevalent among the population. Maths anxiety has been defined as “a feeling of tension, apprehension, or fear that interferes with math performance” (Ashcraft, M.H 2002, p. 1) and is believed to affect around a quarter of the population including thousands of school teachers.
Why do we have maths anxiety?
For me, the anxiety I have for maths came as a surprise as i was always very competent and able in the subject all through primary and up to secondary school. This anxiety first began when i stopped studying it at high school and saw others around me become more competent in the subject. This created a fear that i wasn’t as good as them and couldn’t understand the concepts they were learning. I felt i was being left behind in my learning and was not as smart as them. Therefore, I opted to avoid any mathematical problems that i perceived as too difficult or simply used my calculator to prevent making mistakes and looking bad.
For others, maths anxiety can often be caused by influential adults such as parents who have negative attitudes towards mathematics because they project their fears onto their children. This leads to the children adopting the same negative feelings, such as “maths is a waste of time” and taking them into school. It can also come from the teachers themselves. If a teacher is negative or afraid of maths then their teaching will influence how the children in the class feel towards it. Maths anxiety can often come from the fear of embarrassment or failure which puts the children off from even attempting the subject. If a child has been embarrassed or made to feel wrong in front of the class, it can destroy their confidence and discourage them to explore mathematical concepts in the future.
Maths is a difficult subject and needs strong support from teachers, not more pressure of succeeding in tests or appearing to be always right.
How does maths anxiety impact us?
Learners with maths anxiety will repeatedly go above and beyond to avoid doing maths in class and outside class, which in turn results in even poorer competences in the subject and applications of maths to real life. Children are unfortunately led to believe maths is about having right answers and are therefore too afraid of making mistakes to even try. This means as children grow up avoiding maths and not trying they are likely to have the same poor abilities in their adulthood.
As adults, a lifetime of maths anxiety can have devastating consequences. Some avoid applying for jobs which may involve some mathematical reasoning, therefore limiting their career opportunities. They may have a lack of confidence dealing with their own personal finances, their mortgage, buying/running a car etc. From these examples we can see just how important maths skills are in the real world outside of the classroom. This is why, as future teachers, we need to promote the positivity and relevance of maths to children.
Conquering Maths Anxiety!
As teachers, it is vital that we help children understand maths and not be afraid of it. Allowing children to experiment and discover maths in their own time is so important for their futures and the quality of life they will receive from doing so. We need to show them the relevance of maths and ensure that mathematical problems are set in meaningful contexts to the children. This will make the questions worth solving!
Making maths fun in the classroom will encourage children to enjoy discovering concepts in maths and be curious in their discoveries.
Make children feel comfortable to ask questions and explore as children should not be afraid of getting it wrong – focus more on the discovery and on the excitement!
This Ted Talk by Robert Ahdoot is a great place to start on learning how to conquer maths anxiety in the classroom!
Ashcraft, M.H. (2002), Math anxiety: Personal, educational, and cognitive consequence, Current Directions in Psychological Science, 11: 181–185
Atkinson, E (1992) Mathematics with Reason, Oxon: Bookpoint Ltd.
Brian, K (2012) Maths Anxiety: the numbers are mounting The Guardian [Online] Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/education/2012/apr/30/maths-anxiety-school-support [Accessed: 7 October 2017]