Understanding mathematics anxiety

Learning mathematics can be challenging; however, not all mathematics difficulties result from cognitive difficulties. Some children and adults have mathematics anxiety (MA) which severely disrupts their performance.

MA is a debilitating emotional reaction to mathematics that is increasingly recognised in psychology and education. It has been defined as "a feeling of tension and anxiety that interferes with the manipulation of numbers and the solving of mathematical problems in ordinary life and academic situations". MA ranges from feelings of mild tension to a strong fear of mathematics. MA is not restricted to test or classroom settings, with the result that those affected develop a severe avoidance of situations involving any kinds of mathematics. They may not choose careers involving the application of mathematics, even if cognitively they would be perfectly capable of good mathematics development.

This study will provide an in-depth understanding of the emotional roots of MA in primary and secondary school children. The researchers will also characterize the relation of MA and general anxiety and links to mathematics performance, and develop robust MA questionnaires.

Firstly, the researchers will assess the prevalence of MA and its relation to mathematical performance and test anxiety in a sample of 1,000 primary pupils (followed from Year 4 to 5) and 1,000 secondary pupils (followed from Year 7 to 8). They will then interview a sub-sample of 120 primary and 120 secondary school pupils (half with high MA and half without), to help obtain a fuller picture of childhood triggers, experiences and coping mechanisms.

The project will raise awareness of MA among teachers, parents and psychologists. The results will enable us to identify the triggers of MA and to understand everyday experience and coping mechanisms in MA and the interaction of anxiety and performance. This information will be useful in determining how MA can be avoided, how existing MA can be alleviated and how positive attitudes towards mathematics can be promoted.

Project details



Dr Denes Szucs, Department of Psychology, University of Cambridge 

Dr Ros McLellan, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge

Dr Ann Dowker, Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford

Funding programme:


Grant amount and duration:


1 October 2013 - 31 May 2017