researchED: exploring the research around maths anxiety

Mathematical Institute, University of Oxford

I’m delighted to be joining a great line-up of speakers for researchED Maths and Science in Oxford. In my session I’ll be reviewing evidence around maths anxiety and exploring the possibilities for a more embedded approach to early maths education.

Is it anything new?

Is maths anxiety a new phenomenon or has it always been present in some children and, indeed, adults? On the one hand, people of my age (over 50) can point to anecdotal stories claiming that every shop-worker could count out the correct change to a customer in the days before automated tills. Every high school child could work out how many 1d chews they could buy with their pocket money and every school-leaver could work out how many pints they could afford from this week’s wages or dole money. On the other hand, this might just be sentimental and perhaps it was the threat of a ruler smacked across the back of the hand that was enough to force even the least bright child to learn their 12x tables.

A switch to modern times has us concerned that children’s anxiety about maths is preventing them from achieving their full potential and will define their career opportunities (Ashcraft, 2002). There are potentially many directions in which we can point the blame. Excessive testing is a hot topic and one that is used to suggest our failures in maths education. Perhaps it is a lack of real world relevance. If we compare maths with English we see few who leave school with an inability to use language in a practical everyday sense even though few of our children now know what the pluperfect is. What are the equivalents for maths? Counting out change as a shopkeeper would certainly have fitted the bill but perhaps our pre-packaged world provides fewer opportunities for real world examples of using simple maths.

What are the causes?

So what of the causes of modern day maths anxiety? Does it, perhaps, stem from the anxieties of teachers at school who are non-maths specialists? There have been a number of studies in recent years that have suggested that teachers may pass on to children any of their own anxieties with maths. Bibby (2002) found that teachers often expressed fear or anticipation of judgement against the standards they were required to meet. This was especially the case when they were under pressure (e.g. during INSET activities). Beilock et al. (2012) have found a negative correlation between teacher anxiety and female student performance and a number of other studies have suggested that female teachers can transfer their negative attitudes towards maths to the children. Other studies have found that children fear negative evaluation by teachers if they make a mistake. Parents can also be a cause of maths anxiety. If parents declare that they found maths difficult at school then this can create negative attitudes and anxieties in their children (Gunderson et al., 2012). Alternatively, parents may fail to value and reward achievement in maths (Fraser and Honeyford, 2000).

So what of a solution?

It is not going to be possible to persuade all parents to value their children’s achievements in maths. It is, though, potentially possible to ensure that teachers leave their own fears about maths at the classroom door and promote a maths-rich environment. Perhaps we could do even more to elevate the profile of maths to resemble that of English. Whilst we might have timetabled English lessons in a school curriculum, English is also being used throughout the rest of the day. Whilst it would be impractical to use numeracy absolutely everywhere, its use could be broadened further. Distances and relative distances in geography, how many times bigger one army was than another in history, calculations of proportion in art are all places where maths might not just be used but be seen to be used. Children don’t have to be told that English is all-pervasive, it just is. Likewise, perhaps maths needs to be more pervasive in the things that we teach.

The research I’ll be discussing in my session has been done with primary and early years teachers but that does not exclude the possibility that the same applies to teachers within STEM teaching at higher levels. The lack of research in this domain should not make us complacent that these issues would only apply to primary and early years.

I hope that what you have just read has at least some of you shouting at the page. I may or may not, myself, believe everything I have written but if academia has any role to play it should be to provoke thought, discussion and argument. I look forward to all of these on June 11th.


Kevin Silber is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of Derby. He started life as a neuroscientist and teaches not only Biological Psychology modules, but Philosophical Psychology, Schizophrenia and Neuropsychology. Kevin works in outreach liaison between the university and local schools and colleges. He is an experienced A level examiner and an active member of the Association for the Teaching of Psychology. He has also written a number of books for both A Level and undergraduate students.

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