This blog was originally published in February 2021 when lessons went online during the lockdown period. It’s been updated and republished for Maths Anxiety Awareness Day on 10 November 2021.
Steven Walker, Maths Subject Advisor
“Multiplication is vexation; Division is as bad;
The Rule of Three doth puzzle me, And Practice drives me mad.” John Napier
A common theme across many discussion forums is student anxiety in the maths skills needed across their studies.
Maths anxiety is not a new concept, but the impact of remote learning is not helping. Its impact is felt in lessons running at the moment, but also in concerns that students thinking about their choices for further study are being swayed by the thought of the maths content in those courses.
Anxiety is a normal reaction to perceived danger. It’s the body’s automatic fight-or-flight response that is triggered when we feel threatened, under pressure or are facing a challenging situation. There are many things in life that may induce mild, or severe, feelings of anxiety and these are certainly increased by the unfamiliar restrictions imposed by the current pandemic.
The Maths Anxiety Trust says that maths anxiety is...
“A negative emotional reaction to mathematics, leading to varying degrees of
helplessness, panic and mental disorganisation that arise among some people when
faced with a mathematical problem.”
This is different from actual learning difficulties such as dyscalculia, but no less serious.
The emotional symptoms of maths anxiety can include feelings of helplessness, confusion, a lack of confidence and a fear of looking stupid.
Research by the Centre for Neuroscience in Education at the University of Cambridge suggests 2-6% of UK secondary school students experience extreme anxiety with mathematics. Even in cases of lower level maths anxiety, the effect on the person can still be significant.
Maths anxiety is also not limited to students that do badly in maths. Studies suggest that more than three quarters of those with high levels of maths anxiety still manage to achieve above average scores in maths tests.
Mathematical skills are needed in general day to day activities. Leaving school with a negative experience of maths may lead to life-long anxiety triggered by situations involving numbers or charts.
Within education, students experiencing maths anxiety may actively avoid programmes of study with maths content, even if the main focus of the programme would be well suited to their interests and aspirations.
Parents, older siblings and even other teachers often tell their child “It’s OK, I couldn’t do maths at school”. What they probably mean is that they just didn’t enjoy it and maybe have a mild case of maths anxiety themselves. Unfortunately this just perpetuates the idea that maths is not for everyone; possibly something to be endured, but not enjoyed.
Carol Dweck suggests the assumption that people are just naturally good or bad at a subject is a sign of a ‘Fixed Mindset’. Instead, a ‘Growth Mindset’ is needed in maths, as it is in all subjects. This promotes the idea that skills can be developed with good teaching and practice.
“Do not worry too much about your difficulties in mathematics, I can assure you that
mine are still greater.” Albert Einstein
Maths problems may be difficult, but if you want to know the answer then the process of solving becomes an enjoyable challenge. A context may be all that is needed to turn a scary abstract process into an interesting activity, provided reassurance is available. A range of resources can be found on the Realistic Maths Education (RME) website published by Manchester Metropolitan University.
We certainly should not forget that maths anxiety is a real concern for many and it can cause physical symptoms and behaviour problems in classrooms, but there is a lot of support out there.
The British Psychological Society’s Education and Training Board recently published a guide for psychology teachers, Taking the Fear out of Maths. This gives some nice examples of a range of maths techniques set in contexts appropriate for A Level Psychology.
MEI’s Integrating Mathematical Problem Solving Resources (IMPS) are designed to help teachers of both mathematics and other subjects at A Level to teach relevant aspects of mathematics and statistics, showing how they are used in solving real problems. Topics covered are from biology, business and finance, economics, geography, chemistry, physics, psychology and sociology.
We provide support for the maths content included in a range of subjects, including geography, psychology, biology, chemistry and physics. Teachers in these subjects may also want to make use of our fully editable set of Check In tests for GCSE (9–1) Mathematics, available for Initial learning, Foundation and Higher Tier content (based on the three column content design in our specification).
Students going into post-16 courses may benefit from continued maths support between GCSE and Higher Education courses. You can find out more in my colleague Ruth’s blogs ‘Core Maths – What’s in it for you?’ and ‘A quantitative skills boost for social science students’.
Share your ideas for supporting students with their maths in the comments below, or you can email us at email@example.com, call us on 01223 553998 or tweet us @OCR_Maths. You can also sign up for monthly email updates to receive information about resources and support.
Steven Walker, OCR Maths Subject Advisor
Steven joined OCR in 2014 during the major qualification reform period and now primarily focuses on supporting the Level 3 maths qualifications. Steven originally studied engineering before completing a PGCE in secondary mathematics. He began his teaching career with VSO in Malawi and has taught maths in both the UK and overseas. He is currently balancing his ‘work from home’ commitments with supporting his daughter with her year one lessons.