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Thursday, August 6, 2020

Maths anxiety – is it real?

Steve Sherman
I have never met a student that cannot do maths but I have met many who tell me that they cannot do maths. When someone has decided that maths is too difficult or that they will not succeed in it, then it is most likely that they are on a path of a self-fulfilling prophecy. When a student feels that maths is too difficult for them, they begin to feel anxious and stressed. It has been observed that children as young as six can feel fear, rage and despair as a product of their maths anxiety. This anxiety can manifest in physical symptoms (like sore tummies) and behavioural problems (misbehaving or seeking attention) in class.

It makes sense that when students are feeling anxious and stressed about maths, it is probable that they could fall into a cycle of despair and anxiety. Stress to perform at a task leads to poor performance which results in increased anxiety. It affects their maths performance and leads to more anxiety.

It’s time to focus on the real cause of mathematical crisis. While difficulty level is often blamed, it majorly depends on how the subject is presented

So what is the root cause for this anxiety? Research lists some of these reasons: A negative experience, poor performance in a test, testing and the anxiety associated with writing tests, finding that the teacher does not explain properly or goes too fast through the material, classmates that ridicule a student for asking a question or their performance on a test, low self-esteem and poor self-confidence, learning difficulties like dyscalculia, content is presented at too high a level, a student might have missed a few lessons and the new content builds on the content they missed, etc.

In a recent study, researchers from the faculty of education and the centre for neuroscience in education at Cambridge University worked with 2,700 primary and secondary students in the UK and Italy. The study included comprehensive one-on-one interviews to try to understand maths anxiety and its causes.

Clearly, the source of every student’s maths anxiety will be different but despite this, there are some common issues shared by primary and secondary students. What often comes up in conversations that I have with students is the role that a teacher or parent has played in the development of their anxiety. Students also raise the issue of being confused by different teaching methods and others feel that their teacher has difficulty articulating the content. What is also common is the transition from primary to secondary or middle school. The work is perceived as harder and they feel that they cannot cope. From primary school where number sentences move to letters (algebra) in secondary school, you can appreciate that this will confuse many students. Secondary students also complain about greater pressure from tests, exams and ridiculous amounts of homework.

Don’t tell your child that you hated struggled with or dislike maths. This will just give your child license to use this to fuel their anxiety

Now that we know what causes the maths anxiety, what can we do to reduce it? From my own experience, I first begin with the student and their learning style. If the student is struggling to understand a concept it is usually very obvious in their facial expressions. I then remind my students that if they do not understand what I have explained then it is not their fault but mine! I tell them did I did not explain it well enough and proceed to explain the concept in a different way. If you have a class of 25 students with different learning styles, it is unrealistic to expect every single student to understand one single explanation for a concept. When I remove the pressure from them and take responsibility for their lack of understanding, it allows me an opportunity to grow as a teacher and to bring comfort to my students. My goal is to help my students to feel comfortable enough to let me know when they are experiencing difficulties but I need to be consistent in my willingness to support them.

If teachers are conscious of the fact that maths anxiety affects their student’s performance they are more likely to approach their teaching with empathy. I always tell parent’s that they should never tell lies to their children – with one exception. Don’t tell your child that you hated struggled with or dislike maths. This will just give your child license to use this to fuel their anxiety. If maths anxiety is present from a young age and goes through significant developmental changes, it is important to start with young students and help them to build resilience and confidence from a young age before the anxiety increases with age. Teacher development is critical. Teachers should invest more time on skills like empathy and learn about cognitive and emotional factors behind the way their student learn maths at school. They need to realize that if the anxiety is caused by emotional or cognitive reasons then they should acknowledge that emotional and cognitive problems require completely different interventions and approaches. Teachers could perhaps give less homework and make some lessons less focussed on marks and more focussed on fun.8 Practical ways to conquer your child’s Math Anxiety

Maths is incredibly useful and can be very exciting but it does depend on how it is presented. When students experience maths in a positive way (through games, fun problems, physical activities, a patient teacher, a support structure when concepts are not understood, etc.) then you can be assured your students will have decreased anxiety and they will grow into confident and happy problem solvers. Good Luck!

By the way, we are running a Maths Olympiad (for K-9) later this year. If you are a teacher and would like to receive all our past papers and be added onto the mailing list for all our current and future papers, please send me an email.

Increased Maths Anxiety 
Decreased Maths Performance

I love offering two problems to think about each edition.


Jacob is twice the age of his sister Jill, who is 5 years old. How old will Jacob be when Jill is 35 years old?


There is a five-digit number having digits 1-9, no two digits being identical. Two are prime numbers, two are square numbers, and one is neither. The third digit is twice the fifth, the fourth is six greater than the second and the last is three less than the first.


Junior: 40

Senior: 73894

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