Banishing the number nerves


31 July 2019

A new program is being developed for recognising and addressing the widespread problem of teachers and students who have maths anxiety.

Do you get that butterflies-in-the-stomach feeling when you think about reconciling your bank statement or using algebra to solve a tricky problem? Have you ever watched students disengage during a maths lesson, or had a good student ‘forget’ to do their maths homework?

That’s maths anxiety at work.

“Maths anxiety is the feeling of tension and worry some people feel when doing a maths task,” says Dr Sarah Buckley, of the Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER).

It’s not something that should be ignored, she says. It creates very real problems for teachers and students.

“While the full extent of the problem is unknown, we do know that maths anxiety is very common in schools and it’s something many schools are interested in addressing.”

At the broadest level, anxiety reduces student learning. But the power of maths anxiety extends far beyond a simple sense of nervousness.

“On average, students who have it tend to have a lower level of maths achievement,” says Buckley. “And maths anxious teachers tend to use more traditional teaching methods and are less confident in their maths teaching practice.

“There is also some evidence that maths anxious teachers may transmit their negativity about maths to their students.”

Maths anxiety can shut the door on maths opportunities for both students and teachers.

“The biggest consequence is maths avoidance, which means maths anxious students may avoid their homework and steer clear of maths subjects or careers with a maths component. Maths anxious teachers will often try to avoid teaching maths wherever possible,” says Buckley.

Victorian pilot

In collaboration with researchers from Curtin University in Western Australia and the University of Limerick in Ireland, ACER researchers have developed a new professional learning program that addresses maths anxiety among primary teachers.

The pilot program of the initiative, which is funded by a Sidney Myer Grant, will run in 12 Victorian primary schools from July to December this year. Between one and five teachers from grades 3 to 6 and the maths / numeracy coordinator at each school will participate in the training.

The pilot builds on maths anxiety workshops for preservice teachers undertaken by Buckley and Dr Kate Reid through the Australian Research Council’s Science of Learning Research Centre and draws on research from psychology, neuroscience and education.

The program is designed to help participants increase their understanding of maths anxiety, how it disrupts the learning process and how it can influence long-term behaviour in relation to maths.

“We target maths anxiety directly, so we can take avoidance out of the picture,” says Buckley.

There is face-to-face training and webinars, with opportunities for reflection after participants use strategies to address maths anxiety in the classroom.

Multiple strategies will help teachers deal with different personalities and different situations. “Teachers need to have lots of tools in their toolbox to deal with this problem,” says Buckley.

Maths coordinators have been included so they can lead the program across their schools and train others.

The program, which has an inbuilt research component, with a future roll-out to other schools in mind, is also designed to help teachers who aren’t maths anxious but may have maths anxious students in their classes.

UK study findings

The Centre for Neuroscience in Education at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom is due to report soon on a study investigating the causes of maths anxiety.

The study is expected to identify the triggers of maths anxiety, to understand coping mechanisms and look at the links between anxiety and performance. The centre hopes the information will be useful in determining how maths anxiety can be avoided or alleviated and how positive attitudes towards mathematics can be promoted.

By Janine Mace

This article originally appeared in the Australian Educator Winter 2018.