Rising levels of ‘maths anxiety’ should worry educators and policymakers. But misinformation about the issue means that many of the supposed fixes to this problem are making the situation worse.
As explained in new CIS research by eminent professor David C. Geary, maths anxiety is essentially a fear of, or apprehension about, doing maths.
It’s a genuine and very real condition that develops in similar ways to other widely-held fears and phobias.
The condition affects many Australian school students — and adults too. The 2017 Westpac Numeracy Study found around one in three Australians are affected by it, and high levels of distress about maths affects around one in 20.
Unsurprisingly, anxiety about maths can be linked to poor academic results.
In the latest OECD-run Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), 15-year-old students who reported relatively high levels of maths anxiety lagged the equivalent of almost a full year behind their peers.
Importantly, school students who experience maths anxiety are far less likely to be able to go on to study and work in STEM fields.
But despite its prevalence and impact, maths anxiety is often poorly understood by educators and policymakers. This is largely because many conventional views on the topic are misinformed, and not supported by educational science.
First, maths anxiety is not innate; it is acquired (often from others).
It’s true that many claim to ‘not be a maths person’, in part citing their discomfort with doing maths. In turn, it’s implied that some (disproportionately, girls) are simply born with inherent risk of maths anxiety.
But it is scientifically unfounded that any humans cannot be a ‘maths person’. Even individuals with specific learning difficulties in mathematics — such as dyscalculia or dysgraphia — are capable, with the right support, of performing well and confidently in maths.
It’s generally the adults in a child’s life that contribute most to maths anxiety — through either parents or teachers who themselves struggle with maths — rather than an underlying condition.
Second, maths anxiety is generally the result of poor achievement, not the cause of it.
Unfortunately, this is a classic case of confusing cause and effect. It may once have been a plausible theory that some underlying anxiety about maths could be primarily responsible for poor achievement, but this has now been disproved.
The research shows that it is students who struggle early with maths who are much more prone to anxiety about it later in their schooling — and potentially into adulthood — rather than the other way around. Put simply, early success in maths is the best protection against maths anxiety.
Third, timed testing does not cause maths anxiety.
It’s true that maths-anxious students may be nervous about maths quizzes, exams, and assignments, especially when placed under some time pressure.
But this does not mean that taking away testing — including with time limits — will ultimately benefit a student.
Building maths fluency is best achieved by practice that requires fast and accurate responses. And greater fluency significantly reduces — rather than exacerbates — maths anxiety.
When students can do basic arithmetic with immediate and accurate recall unconsciously, it reduces the cognitive demands when performing related tasks or problems. This is essential to improving confidence and, as a result, commitment to timed assessments actually reduces risks of maths anxiety.
Further, student-led approaches will exacerbate the experience of maths anxiety.
Many student-led approaches to learning are popular in maths education — often centred around students’ own personal discovery and application of mathematical concepts, experimenting with different ways to solve problems, or working on problems among groups of peers.
However, some approaches of this kind are particularly ineffective for students who experience maths anxiety, because the brain’s response to anxiety significantly limits the ability to inhibit irrelevant information and focus on the task.
This especially impairs maths performance in tasks that are inquiry-heavy; as evidence shows that such tasks already significantly draw on severely limited available attention, compared to more direct instructional strategies.
So it’s unsurprising that intervention research shows the best bet to meaningfully address maths anxiety is through direct instruction, particularly in intensive dosages in small-group settings.
Finally, while a so-called ‘growth mindset framework’ is sometimes claimed to be a fix for maths-anxious students, it will not in fact treat maths anxiety.
A range of strategies are associated with this approach, but arguably the most controversial is the mistaken idea that failure is a brain-growing educational experience.
This is simply untrue. Failure can be deeply demotivating and adversely contribute to even greater experiences of anxiety about maths. It’s for this reason that carefully guided teaching and practice — where difficulty levels are purposefully staged to ensure high rates of success — are far more successful than failure-encouraging approaches.
Addressing the growing prevalence and impact of maths anxiety will be important to turning around Australia’s generally declining and disappointing maths outcomes of recent decades.
But the first step will be correcting the record on what works and what doesn’t when it comes to maths anxiety — and ultimately in maths teaching itself.
Glenn Fahey is program director in education policy at the Centre for Independent Studies.
Photo by Karolina Grabowska.