Number nerves

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Mathematics / Myths / Psychology

Does the thought of a maths test bring you out in a cold sweat? Maths anxiety is real. But why do so many people find maths stressful, and what can we do about it?

Feeling anxious? Image credit João Trindade via Flickr

Not a maths person

Imagine you’re sitting in a classroom, about to take a mathematics test. How do you feel? Stressed? Tense? Nervous? Wishing you could escape? Sounds like maths anxiety.

If you’re not sure, you can take a maths anxiety test (oh, the irony).

It’s common to hear ‘I’m just not a maths person’ or ‘I’m no good at numbers’. It seems to be socially acceptable to be maths anxious. But how often have you heard someone say ‘I’m just not a reading person’?

Research shows maths anxiety is common. One estimate suggests 10 – 20 per cent of all adults are highly maths anxious. Most people have at least one negative experience with maths during their school years.

An aversion to maths is not just a result of people getting stressed in tests or exams. Research shows peoples’ heart rates go up more when they are doing a maths test than during other sorts of tests.

Maths anxiety is also different to someone simply finding maths difficult. You can be very good at maths and still find it stressful. When we feel anxious, our working memory is busy with feeling worried, and we make mistakes in our reasoning and calculations. We don’t have enough brain power left over to actually do the sums.

Regardless of how good or bad you are with numbers, you’ll be worse at it if you’re feeling stressed. We tend to choke under pressure.

Maths anxiety can impact self-esteem and is more common in girls and women than in boys and men.

Time for maths class

Maths anxiety is a worldwide experience. One study explored maths anxiety in 64 countries which take part in the Program for International Student Assessment (testing maths, science and reading skills in 15-year olds).

Tunisian and Argentinian kids turn out to be the most maths anxious, while those in Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands are the least maths anxious. Australians are slightly more anxious than the average.

We know our opinions about maths start to form very early. Many primary school students already consider themselves to be bad at maths. Half of kids in grade 1 said they were ‘moderately nervous’ to ‘very very nervous’ about maths.

Research shows that if teachers themselves have maths anxiety, this may pass onto their students. One study of primary school teachers in the US (who are predominantly women) found that at the beginning of the school year, there was no match between a teacher’s maths anxiety and how good her students were in the subject.

But by the end of the school year, if the teacher had maths anxiety, girls (but not boys) were more likely to buy into the idea that ‘boys are good at maths and girls are good at reading’. At the same time, those girls did worse in maths.

Got any homework?

And it’s not only at school that we form opinions about maths. At home, it’s easy to imagine parents with maths anxiety might avoid helping their kids with maths homework. And one study suggests that may be a good thing.

Researchers looked at the relationship between parents’ maths anxiety and how good their grade 1 and 2 children were at maths. If parents were anxious about maths, their kids were also more maths anxious and struggled more with maths. But only if the parent frequently helped with their kid’s maths homework.

If maths anxious parents didn’t help with their kid’s homework often, the kids actually did better. So much for good intentions!

It turns out that a well-meaning parent who empathises with their child by saying something like ‘Don’t worry, I’m no good at maths either’ is doing more harm than good.

Mind your attitude

What can we do about maths anxiety? One of the best approaches would be to stop thinking about maths as something people tend to be either good or bad at. Like anything, the more we practice, the better we get.

And research shows attitude is everything. Students who believe that the key to learning maths is hard work and never giving up do much better at maths than those who believe it’s about being born smart.

A study published just last month found that if students had a positive attitude towards maths, their hippocampus (an important memory centre in the brain) worked better and they did better at maths.

Seems Henry Ford was right about maths too:

Whether you believe you can do a thing or not, you are right.

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2 Comments

  1. Really fascinating. There’s something to be said from the DNA/environment on this topic. I was quite surprised that in this topic I can confidently say that I never felt maths anxiety, nor do I think I was ever exposed to any form of subliminal messaging that moulded me into thinking I’m a girl and maths is not for me. I always loved maths and found it fun and later in high school it appealed to the logical side of me that wanted high grades – unlike the humanities which has an element of subjectivity, maths is less so subjected to that (yes, there are those qualitative interpretive questions I never liked, but…).

  2. Pingback: April 2018 Edition: What's News In Education - Maths Pathway

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