Maths Anxiety Causing ‘Rage & Despair’


Research conducted by Cambridge University has found that ten per cent of children surveyed experience what has been called ‘Maths Anxiety’. The research, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, interviewed 1700 eight to thirteen year olds in response to what has been described as a “mathematics crisis in the UK”. Researchers have labelled the response from those students as ‘Maths Anxiety’ to reflect “overwhelming negative emotions” towards the subject, ranging “from rage to despair”. It was noted that a range of emotions were triggered by Maths including apprehension, tension, and frustration, with physical symptoms including butterflies, a racing heart and breathlessness.

Interestingly, it has been noted that 77% of children who reported maths anxiety are normal to high achievers. The report’s authors have written that ‘’they (decision makers) automatically assume people are anxious about maths because they are poor achievers.” Students reported that their negative feelings towards Maths caused them to act out in class, sometimes resulting in them being removed with a knock-on effect to their overall learning and ability to flourish in school.

Researchers point out that maths anxiety should be treated as a “real concern” because it may be contributing to falling Mathematics standards in the UK, where adult numeracy is low by international measures and seemingly getting worse. According to the Nuffield Foundation report, Understanding Mathematics Anxiety, the percentage of adults with functional maths skills has fallen from 26% in 2003 to 22% in 2011. On the other hand functional literacy skills are improving with 57% of working-age adults gaining the equivalent level which is defined as a C grade.

Personally I don’t think we need a special label for anxiety related to Mathematics – I think this just reinforces the narrative that Maths is a subject with the potential to cause anxiety. That said, the findings of the research clearly show that a challenge exists in supporting students who have these feelings. Although the Cambridge survey only included students up to thirteen years old, research involving older students has found similar findings and I can attest from my own work as a full time Maths tutor that many students have strong negative feelings towards the subject.

In my experience a key trigger of negative feelings towards Maths is that students see it as entirely binary – right or wrong (and perhaps with the potential therefore to get everything wrong). When faced with a scenario in which there are seemingly no grey areas pressure is immediately applied and a debilitating focus on getting things wrong creeps in. In addition to this students generally believe whether they get things right or wrong comes down to how well they can memorize a set of rules – and the recollection of facts is undoubtedly a challenge for a generation with instant access to information.

In my opinion a key means of alleviating this binary, right-wrong, stressor lies in the way the subject is taught. Ask anyone who has studied Maths beyond high school and they’ll tell you it’s a highly creative discipline. Ask any school student and they’ll tell you it lies at the opposite end of the spectrum and doesn’t afford the opportunity to experiment and express yourself in the way we commonly associate with creative subjects. Yes, in Maths there are things students need to understand and learn but that’s true for writers (grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, plot, character development, … ) and artists (composition, tone, understanding light, using different media, proportion, scale, … ) and any discipline. Maths is about solving problems and employing the correct tool to solve a problem is a creative act – sometimes that means recalling one rule and directly implementing it and sometimes it involves piecing together various techniques to form a creative argument. When you set up a right / wrong, remember / forget framework students immediately feel pressured and tense, tested – anxiety is a natural conclusion from there.

I try to help students understand concepts rather than just memorise them – understanding breeds creativity and reduces the pressure of memorising … and time and again when students gain understanding and can use that understanding in various ways, they start to build confidence, to try out things beyond a standard approach and (believe it or not!) may start to enjoy that process. I think this year’s Higher Maths papers are the best the SQA has produced but a lot of students will have felt frustrated because they tested for a well-rounded understanding and ability to apply that understanding laterally not just a regurgitation of well-rehearsed techniques.

Teachers in schools have the unenviable task of having to teach to the common denominator in the class. Out of necessity that often means teaching a process to deal with exam questions rather than teaching the subject itself and potentially inspiring students to go further with what is a highly rich and endlessly fascinating discipline. In an increasing complex and algorithm based world problem-solving ability based on logic similar to that employed in Mathematics will become a key skill and highly marketable in the workplace.

Personally I see a wasted opportunity in the first 2 or 3 years of high school in Scotland where students are progressed very slowly by international standards which may contribute to a sense that the subject is monotonous and dreary. In my tutoring work I often see students become significantly more engaged when they have the opportunity to learn at a faster pace and see various elements of the subject come together – this also helps draw connections between different skills (algebra and geometry is prime example) which improves understanding and lateral thinking. It is for this reason that I now offer 1-1 intensives in which students engage in a personalized program of 90 minute 1-1 sessions and homework exercises over a 2 or 3 week period.

If the ‘Mathematics Crisis’ in the UK is to be addressed we need to instil in students a radically different mindset towards Maths which will require portraying the subject in a new light and showing how enjoyable and satisfying it can be. I’ve tutored many students who were finding Maths difficult and very frustrating but with a little support and guidance were able to overcome their negative feelings and actually look forward to learning more about the subject and challenging themselves with practice questions. I don’t think Maths will appeal to every student or that there lies dormant in each student an untapped Mathematical ability but there’s certainly scope for reimagining how the subject is represented. Portraying Maths as intriguing, inventive and elegant rather than binary, monotonous and difficult won’t happen overnight but must happen if standards are to be raised and the next generation inspired into the many (and increasing) fields which require Mathematical skill and the ability to solve complex problems.

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