Understanding and managing mathematics anxiety

What has been your own experience with mathematics anxiety? Here, ACER Senior Research Fellow Dr Sarah Buckley shares some of the information from a monograph she has written for the Victorian education department on mathematics anxiety, and research regarding the emotion and its impact on learning.

The way that a student engages with mathematics influences the quality of their mathematical learning. One of the most significant factors that can shape this engagement in the classroom is mathematics anxiety – feelings of worry and nervousness when performing mathematical tasks.

Research has consistently demonstrated that individuals who are more anxious about mathematics tend to achieve at lower levels than those who are not (Eden et al., 2013; Ma, 1999), with studies suggesting that it is anxiety's impact on working memory that compromises mathematics potential when performing a mathematics task (Ashcraft & Kirk, 2001). Using diagrams such as Figure 1, the monograph details the mechanisms behind this negative impact on performance. It also discusses the potential for some teachers to experience mathematics anxiety and how this can shape classroom practice.

The impact of mathematics anxiety on mathematics performance.
The impact of mathematics anxiety on mathematics performance.

Figure 1. The impact of mathematics anxiety on mathematics performance.

To help scaffold principals', learning leaders' and teachers' understanding of mathematics anxiety, the monograph presents a unique way of conceptualising the emotion by suggesting that anxiety has symptoms, causes and companions.

It outlines a range of strategies and engagement activities that could be used to better understand and address students' and teachers' mathematics anxiety, including activities intended to uncover negative feelings that younger children might have towards mathematics but are unable to express at their age. It also describes techniques appropriate for older students and adults. Individual and team-based activities for staff are also presented and are designed to help school leaders reflect on how mathematics anxiety might be experienced in the school community and the types of classroom practices that can facilitate its development.

The monograph also emphasises cultural and conceptual challenges associated with addressing mathematics anxiety – for instance, the pervasive negative culture and societal attitudes surrounding mathematics in the community.

A pedagogical challenge for teachers can be understanding that sometimes successfully addressing mathematics anxiety does not require mathematics teaching or trying to make maths fun. And, while helping to build mathematics confidence is a valuable strategy for some students it is not always effective, particularly for students who experience high levels of mathematics anxiety.

The mathematics anxiety monograph is one of a series of maths monographs available to access on the Victorian education department's website via the link.

References

Ashcraft, M. H., & Kirk, E. P. (2001). The relationships among working memory, math anxiety, and performance. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 130(2), 224-237.

Eden, C., Heine, A., & Jacobs, A. M. (2013). Mathematics anxiety and its development in the course of formal schooling—a review. Psychology, 4(06), 27.

Ma, X. (1999). A meta-analysis of the relationship between anxiety toward mathematics and achievement in mathematics. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 30(5), 520-540.

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in Teacher magazine and has been reproduced with the permission of the Australian Council for Educational Research. To read the full article and to read more articles like this visit
www.teachermagazine.com.au.