The mathematical competencies of students have a long-term influence on their employability and wages in adulthood, and on their ability to navigate the many quantitative demands of day-to-day life in the modern world. These competencies are especially important for employment in many science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields.
However, as many as a third of Australian adults and children are affected by maths anxiety – a fear or apprehension of mathematical activities – that severely limits their employment opportunities in STEM industries.
Girls and women have higher levels of maths anxiety, on average, than do boys and men — independent of their mathematics achievement — making it yet another hurdle for increasing female participation in STEM careers.
According to the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) study of 15-year-old students, a one-point increase in its Index of Mathematics Anxiety is associated with a decrease in mathematics achievement of 18 score points (close to the equivalent of one year’s worth of learning) after accounting for socio-economic backgrounds.
Successive PISA studies have identified increasing levels of maths anxiety among students over recent decades, pointing to compromised maths development and subsequently reduced career opportunities.
Once formed, mathematics anxiety is associated with the avoidance (to the extent possible) of mathematical activities (e.g., reduced course taking) and, through this, compromised mathematical development.
Mathematics anxiety can also disrupt performance during mathematical activities, potentially through concerns about performance that, in turn, reduces attentional resources from the mathematics learning or performance (e.g., test) episode.
It would be unwise to try and dismiss the anxiety as not being ‘real’. Brain imaging studies indicate that high levels of mathematics anxiety are associated with strong reactivity of the brain network that underlies acquired or learned fears — and thus student reports of mathematics anxiety should be considered realistic appraisals of their apprehension of mathematics.
In other words, the engagement of brain regions associated with fear and anxiety reactions and ruminations about them indicate that mathematics anxiety is a real phenomenon rooted in biological systems that evolved to reduce exposure to potential threats.
The presence of maths anxiety among Australian students has prompted educators and policymakers to make adjustments in how maths is taught in efforts to accommodate or alleviate maths anxiety.
In some instances, this has resulted in calls to reduce the type and format of testing (such as relaxing the timed conditions of maths tests), reducing the emphasis on procedural understanding, and relaxing the apparent inflexibility of requiring ‘correct’ results to maths problems.
Many people cope with acquired fears — including mathematics anxiety — by avoiding the situations associated with the fear or anxiety, and this avoidance perpetuates it. Avoidance of mathematics will reduce long-term educational and occupational options, and thus reductions in anxiety could be beneficial for many students. The field is in the early stages of developing interventions for mathematics anxiety, but there are some promising approaches.
A common approach to the general treatment of fears and phobias is to increase exposure to the threat, which over time can result in a decline in the associated fear or anxiety. For mathematics this would involve improving basic mathematics competencies, starting at a level that would ensure success, which has been found to reduce mathematics anxiety.
This was evidenced in a study where primary school children who were highly maths anxious and their low-anxious peers participated in an eight week (three 45-minute sessions/week) one-on-one tutoring session focused on basic arithmetic.
Participants were given a brain imaging assessment before and after tutoring. The math-anxious students showed significant reductions in mathematics anxiety and both groups experienced improved basic arithmetic skills. One-on-one tutoring with adults or peers that improves mathematics competencies, is also a promising approach.
Such interventions that can limit maths anxiety, and although there is no current consensus on what is the most appropriate, these educational approaches are likely to work best if they are organised and structured in a step-by-step manner.
Academic competencies at the end of schooling are proven to influence employability, wages, and the ability to navigate the complexities of living in a developed economy. Addressing maths anxiety is key to improving the chances of success for those who suffer from it.
Dr David C. Geary is a Curators’ Distinguished Professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences and Interdisciplinary Neuroscience Program at the University of Missouri, and author of the Centre for Independent Studies paper, Facing Up to Maths Anxiety: How It Affects Achievement And What Can Be Done About It,.