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25 October 2018
Maths Anxiety: a feeling of tension and anxiety that interferes with the manipulation of numbers and the solving of mathematical problems in … ordinary life and academic situations’1
In the wake of a high profile meeting at the House of Lords focused on maths anxiety (MA)2, I’ve been thinking today about how confident I am in my own mathematical ability. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I have come to the conclusion that it very much depends on the context. With my grandchildren I’m supremely confident, secure in the knowledge that they are unlikely to ask me anything I either don’t know or can’t work out. If I’m practising maths alone and unrushed, I enjoy the process and ultimate satisfaction of working out a problem I haven’t seen before but which has hooked me in because it seems intriguing. But expect me to perform maths in a public space with colleagues or friends whom I consider to be at least as ‘good’ and probably ‘better’ at maths than me, and the inevitable imposter syndrome comes into play. I get anxious, my capacity to think logically diminishes and embarrassment takes over. Does that sound familiar?
I’m lucky - my career in mathematics education has been fascinating and rewarding. Holding high profile positions also means that I have been able to represent mathematical women in an area which historically was dominated by men. In those roles I have been used to pressure and being scrutinized; I’m not unduly worried by either, and I enjoy many different types of mathematical thinking. But if even someone like me isn’t immune to MA, is it more insidious than we might suppose?
I’m not alone. MA affects mathematicians of all ages and capabilities and in a variety of situations. Research conducted at The Centre for Neuroscience in Education at the University of Cambridge3 refutes some of the common myths. For example, you might assume that MA is confined to test situations or classrooms but that is not so – it can and does occur in real-life contexts. Their findings show that the mathematical performances of students who exhibit MA can be drastically affected at school and, additionally, ‘otherwise perfectly intelligent and capable persons... (can) develop a severe avoidance of situations involving any kinds of mathematics, even extending to not choosing careers which include the application of mathematics’4. In short, MA can be a cause of severe distress and can affect people’s life decisions. Two reasons, then, to be concerned.
The cause of MA seems to be cyclic. Negative mathematical experiences set up negative memories, which trigger anxiety, which impacts negatively on performance and so it goes on. What those negative experiences are is often difficult to pin down. Various studies5 indicate possibilities, such as being taught by teachers who themselves are anxious, time limits in test situations, being unsuccessful in competitive situations, or being publicly embarrassed. Most of these are factors under the control, to some extent, of the classroom teacher. The resultant MA then negatively affects performance, especially when a high memory load is involved6. Complicating the whole issue is the prevailing culture in the UK which supports the idea of a ‘maths gene’ (some can, others can’t do maths) which sends mixed messages about communicating one’s own mathematical ability.
This is evidently a significant problem. So what is to be done? Long term aims could include more focused professional development for teachers so that they don’t set up anxiety-inducing situations – and changing the UK ‘can’t do’ culture. This may be a long-term goal; it’s certainly unlikely in the short to medium term I think! Perhaps the answer lies in the work of Lee and Johnson-Wilder7 on mathematical resilience, which brings together attitudinal and emotional elements. We know that students who have a ‘can do’ attitude towards mathematics are much less likely to give up, avoid, or become anxious about the subject. They recognize that learning mathematics can sometimes be difficult but with perseverance and hard work they can be successful. Lee and Johnson-Wilder describe this confidence as ‘mathematical resilience’ and as a “particular construct as a consequence of various factors including the type of teaching often used, the nature of mathematics itself and pervasive beliefs about mathematical ability being ‘fixed’.” Early studies focused on building a growth mindset through a mathematically supportive school and home community, encouraging collaborative learning, and acknowledging that learning takes effort but that effort results in improvement (this may seem obvious to the mature adult brain but not always so for our pupils, who haven’t all grown up in a nurturing environment that makes this clear to them). This idea then focuses the students on moving away from a deficit model, developing a positive idea of resilience instead of the negative one of mathematics anxiety.
Post script: the gender difference
In terms of the English school system, reports8&9 differ in the percentage of secondary school pupils affected by MA, from 2-6%. Of those, it is more prevalent in girls than boys. In a fascinating read, Samantha Callan10 traces the origins of gender differences to the social and historical development of an education culture which traditionally has discouraged girls from showing interest in maths and related disciplines.
So have I, as a role model for female mathematicians, learnt to cope with my context-specific maths anxiety? Well yes, and no. I try to practice remembering that mistake-making is a vital and structure-revealing part of mathematics, nothing to be ashamed of and something I have a duty to model when working with teachers and students alike. Most of all, I try to acknowledge and share when I feel anxious, as a way of reducing stigma and helping me to deal with it calmly and productively. And that (usually)works…
Have you experienced maths anxiety? How have you identified and reduced it? You can tweet us @CambridgeMaths or comment below.