Maths Anxiety

Tortoises can tell you more about the road than hares.

Maths anxiety is believed to affect about a quarter of the population. This would equate to more than 2 million schoolchildren in the UK. 

Maths anxiety is not linked to intelligence or ability. Three quarters of children with high levels of maths anxiety are above average achievers on curriculum maths assessments. 

Maths anxiety can affect any individual at any age or stage of learning. with recent studies reporting that children as young as four feel anxious about maths.

The causes of maths anxiety are varied and complex, but include:

  • The child being put under pressure, perhaps by being judged on how quickly they can produce an answer. 
  • The child feeling that they are in competition with their peers.
  • The child experiencing insensitivity from teachers, perhaps being ridiculed for getting something wrong in a lesson. Working memory is important for solving mathematical problems, and any anxiety will reduce the capacity of a child’s working memory. When a child feels anxious, they will struggle to understand any maths being taught. 
  •  Non-specialist teachers and the child’s parents transmitting their own lack of confidence in Maths, giving the child the impression that Maths is something complicated and difficult.

Maths anxiety can have far-reaching consequences. Anxious pupils will underperform, and their achievement be out of line with their underlying ability. This will create more anxiety which, in turn, will lead to more underperformance. The secondary-aged pupil may avoid choosing subjects that involve Maths in any form. Parents may avoid supporting their children with Maths homework. The individual may believe that they are incapable of improving their Maths skills. 

Solutions.

  • Reducing classroom pressure such as time limits in tests, would help to alleviate maths anxiety. It is important for pupils to work at their own pace, without feeling the need to master a mathematical concept immediately 
  • Teachers need to be aware that maths anxiety can affect students’ maths performance. Maths is a subject where answers are either right or wrong, and teaching methods that focus on quick recall, and on answers given in front of the class are unhelpful to the anxious child. 

Confidence is as important as competence when it comes to Maths achievement. 

  • When memorising is valued over understanding, slower thinkers may be put off Maths. Children need to appreciate that if they struggle with a topic, their struggle will lead to deeper understanding. Peers with good memories may not retain what they have learnt to the same level, as their lack of effort results in superficial learning. 
  • The idea that speed is a reflection of ability is outdated. A child does not have to be quick to be talented. Some of the world’s most able mathematicians think slowly and deeply. Society needs creative, flexible mathematicians to solve the challenges of the future, rather than those who are able to reproduce taught content at speed. Speed and fixed approaches will only get the mathematician so far.

In his autobiography, Laurent Schwartz, winner of the world’s highest award in mathematics, the Field’s Medal, described feeling “stupid” in school because he was a slow thinker, but he continues to stress that:

‘There is a distinction between the quality of our thoughts and the speed by which we generate thoughts. Just because we can think quickly, does not mean we think well or have thought an idea or insight through.’

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