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Maths anxiety is real, and it’s affecting kids

New research from the United Kingdom shows that not all difficulties suffered by students with maths result from cognition, with feelings of anxiety, apprehension, tension and discomfort when confronted with maths problems.

The Understanding Mathematics Anxiety: Investigating the experiences of UK primary and secondary school students report, funded by the Nuffield Foundation with support from the James S McDonnell Foundation and published by the Centre for Neuroscience in Education at the University of Cambridge, explores the nature and resolution of so-called “mathematics anxiety”.

It examined the factors that influence maths anxiety among primary and secondary school students, showing that teachers and parents may inadvertently play a role in a child’s development of the condition.

Girls tend to be more affected than boys, according to the research.

“While mathematics is often considered a hard subject, not all difficulties with the subject result from cognitive difficulties. Many children and adults experience feelings of anxiety, apprehension, tension or discomfort when confronted by a maths problem,” Cambridge University noted in a statement.

An investigation in 1,700 UK schoolchildren found that a “general feeling that maths was more difficult than other subjects often contributed to maths anxiety, leading to a lack or loss of confidence”. Students pointed to poor marks or test results, or negative comparisons to peers or siblings as reasons for feeling anxious, it continued.

“While every child’s maths anxiety may be different, with unique origins and triggers, we found several common issues among both the primary and secondary school students that we interviewed,” said Dr Denes Szucs from the Department of Psychology, the study’s lead author.

Students often discussed the role that their teachers and parents played in their development of maths anxiety. Primary-aged children referred to instances where they had been confused by different teaching methods, while secondary students commented on poor interpersonal relations, the university noted.

Secondary students indicated that the transition from primary to secondary school had been a cause of maths anxiety, as the work seemed harder and they couldn’t cope. There was also greater pressure from tests – in particular, SATS – and an increased homework load, it added.

To counter such anxiety, the researchers highlighted the need for teachers to be conscious that an individual’s maths anxiety likely affects their mathematics performance.

“Teachers and parents also need to be aware that their own maths anxiety might influence their students’ or child’s maths anxiety, and that gendered stereotypes about mathematics suitability and ability might contribute to the gender gap in maths performance,” they said.

“Teachers, parents, brothers and sisters and classmates can all play a role in shaping a child’s maths anxiety,” added co-author Dr Ros McLellan from the Faculty of Education.

“Parents and teachers should also be mindful of how they may unwittingly contribute to a child’s maths anxiety. Tackling their own anxieties and belief systems in maths might be the first step to helping their children or students.”

The researchers further advised that as maths anxiety is present from a young age but may develop as the child grows, further research should be focused on how maths anxiety can be best remediated before any strong link with performance begins to emerge.

“Our findings should be of real concern for educators. We should be tackling the problem of maths anxiety now to enable these young people to stop feeling anxious about learning mathematics and give them the opportunity to flourish,” said Dr Szucs.

“If we can improve a student’s experience within their maths lessons, we can help lessen their maths anxiety, and in turn this may increase their overall maths performance.”

Nuffield Foundation director of education Josh Hillman said: “Mathematical achievement is valuable in its own right, as a foundation for many other subjects and as an important predictor of future academic outcomes, employment opportunities and even health. Maths anxiety can severely disrupt students’ performance in the subject in both primary and secondary school.”

“But importantly – and surprisingly – this new research suggests that the majority of students experiencing maths anxiety have normal to high maths ability. We hope that the report’s recommendations will inform the design of school and home-based interventions and approaches to prevent maths anxiety developing in the first place,” he concluded.