Maths anxiety – How to tackle the vicious cycle
Once students’ attitudes to maths have hardened, the process can be difficult to undo – but not impossible, writes Nicola Woodford-Smith…
We’ve all observed them in maths lessons. The student who struggles to settle, seems distracted or disengaged while protesting that the subject is, ‘Booooooring…’
The learner who finds it difficult to answer questions on the spot and opts for the easiest answers every time. The student who rarely ever hands their homework on time – if at all.
You may have one of these learners in your class, perhaps several. The anti-maths mindset is infectious. And then there are the friends, colleagues and parents who are always quick to opine, ‘I hate maths. Dreadful subject. I’m terrible at it…’
You know those people. You’ve met them. You may even, whisper it, be one yourself – hastily passing on the dinner bill for somebody else to work out; asking a partner or friend to work out your costs in the supermarket; never quite getting a handle on your budget.
The anti-maths mask
Right now in the UK, it seems socially acceptable to be ‘anti-maths’ in a way you rarely ever hear when applied to subjects such as English. (‘Literacy? Ugh, I hate words. Just read out what this says so I don’t have to…‘)
Maths is the lynchpin of our society, yet so many of us seem to disregard it – students, teachers and parents alike. We overlook the power the subject grants us to better understand how all manner of natural and man-made processes work; how to make calculated predictions and estimations; how to control our own finances and plan
pathways that will support us in the long-term.
This anti-maths mindset is a stifling one that restricts the potential of children, young people and adults everywhere. But it often masks a far deeper issue – that of maths anxiety.
What is maths anxiety?
Picture this. You grow up in a household with at least one parent or carer who struggled with maths as a child. Before you even start school, you’ve heard many a passing comment about how maths is ‘Too hard,’ ‘awful,’ ‘impossible.’ You’ve watched them frequently struggle with basic arithmetic over many years.
Then, during your first ever primary school maths lesson, you feel that same fear. The maths teacher asks you to stand up and poses a quick question, hoping for a quick reply. Perhaps because you’re so apprehensive, you don’t quite hear the question and your throat dries up. Maybe you eventually give the wrong answer and feel bad for getting it wrong.
Maybe you say nothing.
Multiply that experience over several years of primary lessons and it’s easy to see how, by the time they’ve reached Y7, anxious learners will be well on the way to becoming People Who Struggle With Maths, destined to be forever disengaged from the subject for the rest of their lives.
Unfortunately, some teachers will see the symptoms of maths anxiety as indicative of poor behaviour and seek to address them by way of disciplinary solutions, but this can actually compound learner disengagement even further – by making maths feel intimidating, punishing, and simply ‘not for them’.
In actual fact, the message we need to be spreading is that maths is for everyone.
The unlearning process
More than a third of 15- to 24 -year-olds in the UK feel anxiety about maths. Just 26% of undergraduate students possess the numerical skills and understanding necessary for daily life and work, while 1 in 5 parents suffer a fear of numbers.
The good news, however, is that school can go a long way towards turning these numbers around and reclaiming maths as the accessible, fun, creative and empowering subject it’s always been. We can start by helping students and peers unlearn their negative mindsets. If they profess to find maths ‘booooooring’, show them how this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Seek out resources that include relevant, real-life examples to help engage them more. What TV shows are your learners interested in? Who’s the latest influencer that everyone’s talking about? Find out, and put maths in the picture.
As a class, try calculating the probabilities of one reality show contestant winning out over the others. Calculate star salaries, analyse follower counts, predict audience growth trends over time.
Do certain students seem especially isolated when trying to engage with the subject? Provide targeted one-to-one support for those needing to catch up, without fear of any in-class humiliation.
More broadly, utilise group learning so that students can explore concepts and challenges as part of a team engaged in a problem-solving exercise – just like professional mathematicians.
Paving the way
This spirit of collaboration can be extended outside of class, by partnering with external organisations and maths leaders that promote engagement within STEM, like the Association for Black and Minority Ethnic Engineers (afbe.org.uk) or Stemettes (stemettes.org).
Celebrate the diversity of people who love and use maths, focusing on individuals who are excelling and breaking down maths barriers, or who paved the way in years gone by.
One example of the latter is Dr Gladys West – the Black mathematician whose work led directly to the invention of GPS. Another is Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi – the 9th century Muslim academic widely known as the
father of algebra.
Invite your learners to see that mathematics is not only open to people ‘like them,’ but could actually help them thrive in later life. It’s important to also stress here that maths itself is a very diverse subject. Some learners may struggle with trigonometry, but have a real aptitude for algebra, geometry or computing and greatly enjoy studying them.
In the same way that we don’t tend to ‘give up on English’ after reading a style of writing we don’t like, we must encourage students to think of maths as a subject that’s constantly in flux, ever-expanding and endlessly surprising.
Ending the vicious cycle
By freeing maths from the confines of fusty stereotypes, we can give new generations the chance to discover those aspects of maths that feel positive and powerful to them. This could help end the vicious anti-maths mindset cycle we see, which begins with feelings of anxiety regarding the subject, before hardening into a deeper antipathy.
You can speed this process up by lessening the pressures of your classroom. Use language that encourages, rather than penalises. Look out for anxious reactions and try to mitigate these with breaks, fun activities or even calming music.
Make room for growth, in place of more triggers for shutdown. Create a teaching space in which it’s safe to make mistakes, be curious, use thinking time, raise a hand to ask questions or speak up whenever a new topic feels challenging.
This is when ‘avoidant’ shifts to ‘engaged.’ This is how ‘struggles’ can become ‘breakthroughs.’ This is the power of maths. And it’s available to us all.
10 tips for more positive mindsets
- Choose positive words that encourage curiosity and exploration in the subject
- Avoid black-and-white statements that tell learners there is only ‘right’ or ‘wrong’
- Reassure students of the importance of making mistakes when learning new concepts
- Make space for inclusive group discussions in class
- Emphasise the diversity of the subject, its learners and pioneers
- Try to never put a student on the spot in front of others
- Steer clear of punitive language that can trigger a handbrake on learning
- Use real-life, relatable contexts that speak to your students’ experiences
- Invite collaboration with leading maths lovers in your local community and the wider maths sector
- Highlight the universal importance of the subject in your students’ lives – as young people now and adults in future
Nicola Woodford-Smith is a Maths Subject Partner for Pearson, having taught maths for 13 years at both GCSE and A Level. Discover Pearson’s range of maths qualifications and resources, creating pathways for all students to succeed in maths, and download the company’s ‘Guide to Tackling Maths Anxiety’, which is full of tips, guidance and reflections for all ages. For more information, visit pearsonschoolsandfecolleges.co.uk or follow @PearsonSchools.