Tackling maths anxiety and building students' resilience

Written by: Alexandra Riley | Published:
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Maths anxiety is increasingly being recognised as a barrier to learning. Alexandra Riley shares some practical approaches to build secondary school students’ confidence and engagement with the subject

Maths anxiety affects thousands of people across the nation and is widely acknowledged as a barrier to engagement and progress in maths education. Worryingly, it is also linked to a range of other issues: poor financial planning, low self-efficacy in teachers, and difficulty with learning related subjects (Field et al, 2019).

It is unfortunately not uncommon to hear the phrases “I can’t do maths” or “I don’t like maths” echoing around school corridors. But when does dislike of maths become maths anxiety?

The second Power of Maths Roundtable last year saw teachers, academics, charity and business leaders exploring the impact of maths anxiety, share expertise and seek solutions. Here are some of my takeaways for how schools can spot maths anxiety and take steps to alleviate its impact upon key stage 3 and GCSE students.

A shared understanding of what maths anxiety is

Before schools can work to tackle maths anxiety, it is important that teachers and staff have a clear understanding of what maths anxiety is and how it affects their pupils. Here are the headlines:

  • It has been defined by leading academic, Sue Johnston-Wilder, as “a negative emotional reaction to mathematics that acts as an ‘emotional handbrake’ and holds up progress in maths” (Pearson, 2019).
  • The severity of maths anxiety can range from a feeling of mild tension to experiencing a strong and deep-rooted fear of maths.
  • It spans the attainment spectrum, from those who find the subject more challenging to high-fliers.
  • It is not always obvious. It can sometimes be invisible, manifesting itself as poor behaviour, anger, frustration, avoidance, under-attainment or helplessness.
  • Self-reported maths-anxious students were more likely to be identified if their teacher taught them more regularly – i.e. for at least four lessons a week. Teaching for only one or two hours a week hampered a teacher’s ability to identify their maths-anxious students.
  • More than three-quarters of self-reported anxious students were girls.
  • Teachers did not identify all those that self-reported symptoms of maths anxiety, with concerns that large numbers of students go unidentified.
  • Many symptoms of maths anxiety can be mistaken for poor behaviour. If the two issues are conflated, students who are suffering may receive punishment rather support.
  • The comfort zone: Students work on familiar tasks independently, building their self-confidence and providing opportunities for practice and automaticity.
  • The growth zone: New learning happens here, it is safe to make mistakes, get stuck, require support, and find activities challenging and tiring.
  • The anxiety zone: Here, what is being asked is not within the student’s reach at that moment. The student starts to experience threat rather than challenge, stress increases, cognition decreases, and little or no useful learning takes place.

Raising awareness of maths anxiety can build momentum for a whole-school effort to tackle it. Proactive steps range from posting the definition of maths anxiety on a board in the staffroom to drawing on the likes of the Power of Maths Guide to Tackling Maths Anxiety (Pearson, 2019) and Cambridge Espresso research digests (2017) to inform focused CPD sessions.

Identifying maths anxiety in your school

Recent UK research shows that among eight to 13-year-olds, around one in 10 are thought to suffer from maths anxiety, while 36 per cent of 15 to 24-year-olds say they feel anxious about maths (Carey et al, 2019; Maths Anxiety Trust, 2018).

During the 11 to 19 education journey, pupils encounter critical transitions, such as moving from primary to secondary school and starting GCSEs. These transitions are the perfect moment to understand students’ attitudes to maths and tackle negative responses.

Questionnaires for pupils and teachers can be useful tools to help understand the scale of the issue in your school, identify any patterns and inform prevention and treatment strategies. Surveys could range from simply asking pupils to rate their anxiety (from 1 to 10) when they are asked a maths question, to more detailed questions for staff.

Rob Brown, a maths teacher at West Lakes Academy in Cumbria, carried out an in-school research project into maths anxiety encompassing student and teacher questionnaires and interviews. His findings showed:

The project concluded that interventions should be delivered to whole cohorts or classes, allowing students more thinking time and appropriate scaffolding to questions.

Building mathematical resilience

Whether they are used in response to questionnaires, or as part of a whole-school approach, there are a variety of tools and strategies that can support tackling maths anxiety for individual students while also boosting maths confidence for all.

For example, the Growth Zone Model (Lugalia et al, 2013; see also Lee & Johnston-Wilder, 2018) gives a framework to help pupils to name and communicate their feelings, which then helps to reduce anxiety and build resilience.

Teachers can introduce pupils to the framework and encourage them to use their own words to describe their feelings when faced with different situations, such as feeling challenged or comfortable with maths activities.

You can print the model and use it as a physical and visual aid in the classroom with your students. For example, students can place an object on the colours of the model at regular intervals to indicate their emotions. This will help them to be more aware of both their emotional responses and where they are in their learning journey.

Thinking more carefully about their learning will help them to confidently meet any challenges in maths in future years. It also allows teachers to better understand when to challenge students in the comfort zone with a question or support students in the anxiety zone.

When pupils are in the anxiety zone, healthy learning cannot take place. The focus should instead turn to reducing the anxiety as quickly and supportively as possible – this could mean having one-to-one sessions with targeted support or taking a break and going for a walk.

Developed by Dr Herbert Benson, the “relaxation response” (2016) is seen as a quick, effective way to switch off the brain’s “fight or flight response” by engaging the parasympathetic nervous system and returning the student to a calm state.

Students should focus on their breathing, surrounding sounds or the repetition of a well-chosen word, for instance “calm” or “joy”. As the student repeats their chosen word, in time with their breathing (if possible), they will be able to clear their mind and return to thinking effectively by consciously drawing on this technique.

A key way to reduce maths anxiety is to move away from focusing on right and wrong answers, and instead bring creative thinking to the fore.

Mathematicians regularly work in groups to explore concepts and challenges, so why not encourage more group working and team-work in classrooms too. This can generate creative thinking and engagement with the subject, while promoting key skills such as collaborative problem-solving and mathematical discussion.

Make maths more inclusive

One of the factors considered as contributing to maths anxiety is a feeling of exclusion. It is important to highlight that maths is for everyone and plays an integral part in all our daily lives.

Celebrate and raise the profile of diverse individuals who are breaking ceilings and excelling in STEM disciplines to showcase the doors that maths can unlock for everyone. Try organisations like WISE (Women into Science and Engineering) and the Association for Black and Minority Ethnic Engineers among many others.

While maths anxiety will not be tackled overnight, these steps can help kick-start a whole-school ambition to build more confident and resilient maths learners.

  • Alexandra Riley is senior strategy manager for secondary maths at Pearson and part of the team behind the #PowerOfMaths campaign.

Further information & resources

  • Benson: Relaxation Response: Dr Herbert Benson Teaches You the Basics, Massachusetts Department of Public Health (YouTube video), February 2016: http://bit.ly/35D0dyP
  • Cambridge Espresso: How does maths anxiety affect mathematics learning? Cambridge Mathematics Espresso. Issue 6, May 2017: http://bit.ly/2FD1RWJ
  • Carey et al: Understanding mathematics anxiety: Investigating the experiences of UK primary and secondary school students, March 2019: http://bit.ly/2QGTzU6
  • Field et al: Predicting maths anxiety from mathematical achievement across the transition from primary to secondary education, Royal Society, 2019: http://bit.ly/2sVuEDr
  • Lee & Johnston-Wilder: Getting into and staying in the Growth Zone, 2018: https://nrich.maths.org/13491
  • Lugalia, Johnston-Wilder & Goodall: The role of ICT in developing mathematical resilience in learners, INTED January 2013: http://bit.ly/2QDMgfY
  • Maths Anxiety Trust: Maths Anxiety Summit 2018, August 2018: http://bit.ly/305nrg6
  • Pearson: A Guide to Tackling Maths Anxiety, 2019: http://bit.ly/2QWYX4g


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