We all know someone who gets the jitters when they have to make a speech, or breaks out in a cold sweat at the mere thought of being in an enclosed space. That person might even be you.
But do you know of someone with mathematics anxiety? Chances are, you do.
In fact, researchers estimated that in 2005, approximately 20% of the US population were highly maths anxious, and given the cultural similarities between the US and Australia, we can assume that the percentage is comparable here.
Maths anxiety is associated with well-known physical symptoms such as sweaty palms and racing heart, but is also linked to worry or fear that interferes with maths performance. It is a condition that has follow-on effects through life by affecting career paths and reinforcing stereotypes.
So how do we stop it? Well, we must first understand it.
There is a common belief that higher maths ability goes hand in hand with greater levels of general intelligence. At the same time, many students have a negative attitude towards maths.
Research on emotions in the classroom suggests anxiety is experienced when a person highly values a task but feels that they have no control over it.
Maths anxiety predisposes students to be hypersensitive to mathematical stimuli, to experience fear almost automatically after they encounter mathematics and to be less capable of recruiting strategies to control this fear.
In the short term, a student’s inability to manage that anxiety leads to a drop in maths performance. The long-term impact is the development of a negative attitude towards maths and the avoidance of subjects, courses and careers that involve maths, thereby limiting students' opportunities and career pathways.
According to psychological theory, the primitive fight-or-flight response is at the centre of the anxiety experience. Interventions in schools to reduce maths anxiety must therefore help students to control their emotional reaction to mathematics.
To do this it’s necessary to identify the factors that lead to students feeling negatively towards the subject.
The issue of gender and maths has been researched for decades. A discussion paper called Girls (and Boys) and Mathematics, commissioned by the ACT Schools Authority in 1985, suggested that there were common myths permeating Australian culture related to girls’ ability in maths.
- girls, physiologically, are incapable of comprehending and manipulating symbols or of thinking in an abstract way
- mathematicians are logical, girls are illogical
- educating women in maths/science is a waste of time when they are going to get married
Luckily, these myths are no longer accepted as truths almost 30 years on; but the paper lists other misconceptions that educators continue to challenge, such as:
- maths/science is only required by those students who choose to follow a scientific career
- maths is only for bright kids
- societal and/or peer pressures prevent girls admitting they like and enjoy maths, whatever the level of difficulty of the study
The latter myth relates to a phenomenon known as stereotype threat, which suggests that girls are exposed to negative stereotypes about gender and maths by, for example, teachers and parents, and the threat of this stereotype makes them more vulnerable to feeling anxious.
Value and control
Myths in relation to gender and maths are not the only ones that have the potential to have a negative impact on students’ learning in maths.
Environmental factors play a significant role in maths anxiety, in terms of the way people value maths and the extent to which they feel in control in relation to the subject.
Maths is valued because it is considered by the community to be an indicator of intelligence. Students’ feelings of lack of control could stem from the idea that maths is “difficult” or that you have to have a “maths brain” in order to succeed in the subject. These two types of myth fuel the experience of maths anxiety for students and the wider community.
Feelings of lack of control can be due to cultural norms, such as negative stereotypes about image and gender. Even though mathematics ability is considered an indicator of intelligence, it is unfortunately socially acceptable – in some cases even seen as desirable – to show a lack of interest or ability in maths. The alternative is to risk being labelled a “nerd”.
This contradiction reflects a culture that facilitates the development of maths anxiety in students.
There is a common misconception in Australia that maths is only important for people with career interests in fields such as engineering, business and science when, in fact, it’s a subject that provides thinking skills invaluable to everyday life.
Unfortunately, and perhaps because avoidance is the ultimate consequence of maths anxiety, the number of students enrolling in mathematics subjects is reported to be declining, with girls in particular choosing not to pursue maths into their senior years.
Helping students with maths anxiety to conquer their fear will enable them to fulfil their maths potential and broaden their career options, to the benefit of the Australian economy.
In the classroom
The classroom is an ideal place in which negative stereotypes and myths about maths can be debunked and positive attitudes towards maths can be modelled. This type of supportive environment could encourage students to have a go without fear.
In order to do this, students should feel that maths is just like any other subject and hard work will bring about improvement. Parents and teachers can help their students to understand that things like gender stereotypes and negative peer culture need not limit their mathematical choices.
Students should also be made aware of the many applications of maths in many careers and life pathways.
Armed with this outlook, students will be able to fulfil their maths potential and make choices based on factors other than anxiety.
This article is based on the ACER Occasional Essay Deconstructing maths anxiety: Helping students to develop a positive attitude towards learning maths.
Dr Buckley will present on the topic of maths anxiety at the 2013 ACER Research Conference in Melbourne on Monday August 5, 2013. The conference, on the theme “How the Brain Learns: What lessons are there for teaching?” runs from August 4-6, 2013.