Loughborough University: Being anxious about studying maths doesn’t mean you’re not good at it, but it can result in negative outcomes, says expert

Have you ever felt stressed or anxious while staring at your maths homework? Did the idea of your maths teacher asking you a question in class fill you with dread?

If so, you may have experienced ‘maths anxiety’.

Numbers are all around us – from counting money to reading the time – so maths is a crucial skill to learn at school.

However, many children and adults experience feelings of stress and anxiety when faced with situations relating to maths.

In the latest episode of the Cuppa with a Scientist podcast, Dr Kinga Morsanyi, Senior Lecturer in Mathematical Cognition, discusses the issue and highlights that it’s important that those with maths anxiety understand it doesn’t mean they’re bad at maths.

“People who are anxious about maths, might be actually quite good at it. It’s not the same thing to be bad at maths and to be anxious about it”, she said.

“But some people have really low confidence in their maths ability, and they think ‘oh I’m not a maths person, I’m not so good with numbers’, and that’s not always true.”

Dr Morsanyi’s research looks at the effects of maths anxiety when separated from maths knowledge.

She explained: “If you take two people with exactly the same level of maths knowledge but one of them is confident and the other one is anxious then you often find that the person who’s anxious will end up with worse results.

“For example, this may lead to worse exam marks, worse outcomes, they may not apply for some jobs because they don’t feel confident enough to, and so on.

“So, in a lot of cases, although they have exactly the same ability and same knowledge of the procedures, one person will be disadvantaged in their life choices and their outcomes.”

Dr Morsanyi says there is a need for early assessment and intervention to tackle maths anxiety and positive attitudes towards mathematics should start to be developed in the first years of school, or even earlier.

She has shared the following tips to help children and young people overcome mathematics anxiety:

Parents and teachers can transmit negative attitudes and anxiety towards maths so approaches that can increase parents’ confidence in their ability to help their children are important. Fun maths games that can be played at home (including traditional board games with dice) are a good start.
Computer programmes and apps can also be good for practicing maths and offer a motivating, attractive, and non-judgmental environment for practising these essential skills.
Drawing students’ attention to previous instances where they successfully tackled maths challenges can boost self-confidence and lead to more positive attitudes and less anxiety.
Practising maths with a tutor can also reduce anxiety.
Dr Morsanyi has also shared her tips and the findings of a study she led that looked at maths anxiety in 200 six-year-old schoolchildren in the UK and Italy in the Conversation.

Of what she ultimately hopes to achieve with her maths anxiety-related research, Dr Morsanyi said: “Maths anxiety is a condition that affects many people (including both children and adults) and is more common amongst women and people from lower income backgrounds.

“Because maths anxiety can prevent high ability people to perform at their best in high-stakes situations, it can be a real barrier to some people to enter maths-intensive fields.

“In addition to loss of talent in some professions, another consequence of maths anxiety is that people may be less confident about making some important decisions where numerical information is involved in their everyday life.

“For example, some of our studies showed that maths anxious people are less likely to make advantageous choices about medical treatments when presented with statistical information. They are also less confident in their decisions, which could result in not adhering to effective treatments.

“Given these important consequences of maths anxiety, I am hoping to uncover ways of preventing the development of maths anxiety, reducing maths anxiety in both children and adults, and helping maths anxious people to achieve their full potential.”

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