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Early intervention is key to breaking ‘vicious circle’ of maths anxiety

By Nuffield Foundation

Three quarters (77%) of children with high maths anxiety are normal to high achievers on curriculum maths tests, according to Nuffield-funded research from the Centre for Neuroscience in Education at the University of Cambridge. 

However, it is almost certainly the case that in the long term, people with greater maths anxiety perform worse than their true maths ability. Today’s report includes a review of existing research literature that shows that this can lead to a vicious circle: maths anxiety leading to poorer performance and poorer performance increasing maths anxiety.

Whilst maths 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 with a maths problem. Girls in both primary and secondary school were found to have higher levels of both maths anxiety and general anxiety. 

The researchers found that teachers and parents might influence student maths anxiety. Parents and teachers tackling their own anxieties and belief systems in maths might be the first step to helping their children or students. 

Researchers worked with more than 2,700 primary and secondary students in the UK and Italy to examine both maths anxiety and general anxiety, and gain a measure of mathematics performance. Students pointed to poor marks or test results, or negative comparisons to peers or siblings as reasons for feeling anxious.

“Because these children perform well at tests, their maths anxiety is at high risk of going unnoticed by their teachers and parents, who may only look at performance but not at emotional factors,” says researcher Dr Amy Devine. “But their anxiety may keep these students away from STEM fields for life when in fact they would be perfectly able to perform well in these fields.”

Secondary students also 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.

The report sets out a series of recommendations, including: 

  • Teachers should be aware that maths anxiety can affect students’ maths 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.
  • Certain interventions, such as reducing classroom pressure and using methods like free writing about emotions prior to a test could help alleviate maths anxiety. 

Project lead, Dr Denes Szucs, said: 

 “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. 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.”

Josh Hillman, Director of Education at the Nuffield Foundation, 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.”

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We improve people’s lives by funding research that informs social policy, primarily in EducationWelfare and Justice. We also fund student programmes that give young people skills and confidence in science and research.

We offer our grant-holders the freedom to frame questions and enable new thinking. Our research must stand up to rigorous academic scrutiny, but we understand that to be successful in effecting change, it also needs to be relevant to people’s experience.