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

Grant amount and duration:


October 2013 - February 2019



Full Report

Understanding Mathematics Anxiety: Investigating the experiences of UK primary and secondary school students. D. Szucs et al. University of Cambridge (2019). 

Executive Summary

Understanding Mathematics Anxiety: Investigating the experiences of UK primary and secondary school students. D. Szucs et al. University of Cambridge (2019). 

Devine A, Hill F, Carey E, & Szücs D (2017). Cognitive and Emotional Math Problems Largely Dissociate: Prevalence of Developmental Dyscalculia and Mathematics Anxiety. Journal of Educational Psychology. Advance online publication.

Carey E, Devine A, Hill F & Szücs D (2017). Differentiating anxiety forms and their role in academic performance from primary to secondary school. PLOS ONE, 12(3).

Carey E, Hill F, Devine A, & Szücs D (2017). The Modified Abbreviated Math Anxiety Scale: A Valid and Reliable Instrument for Use with Children. Frontiers in Psychology. 8:10.

Carey E, Hill F, Devine A, & Szücs D (2016). The Chicken or the Egg? The Direction of the Relationship Between Mathematics Anxiety and Mathematics Performance. Frontiers in Psychology. 6:1987.

Hill, F., Mammarella, I., Devine, A., Caviola, S., Passolunghi, M. and Szűcs, D. (2016). Maths anxiety in primary and secondary school students: Gender differences, developmental changes and anxiety specificity. Learning and Individual Differences, 48, pp.45-53.

Mammarella I, Hill F, Devine A, Caviola S, & Szücs D (2015). Math anxiety and developmental dyscalculia: A study on working memory processes. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, 37(8), pp.878-887.