Worried excessively when presented with a mathematics problem? Feeling perplexed when seeing a jumble of words, numbers, and symbols stuck together? Does your mind wander off elsewhere?
If you replied positively to any or all of the above, then you are not alone in facing the commonly known phenomenon of “mathematical anxiety”, which, it must be emphasised, is independent of skill. Defined by Mark Ashcraft (2002) as “a feeling of tension, apprehension, or fear that interferes with math performance”, this specific anxiety was diagnosed over 40 years ago and is connected directly with avoiding mathematics, which leads to poor performance as well as spawns negative attitudes towards the subject. Moreover, very apprehensive students will avoid situations in which they have to perform calculations.
The ramifications of this become evident in students losing competency, a reduced exposure to mathematical problems, and – of course – academic achievement; ultimately, confidence and motivation both lower. You may ask, “Well, what if I am just bad at maths?” If individuals were simply bad at maths, then their brain scans would not show the triggering of a specific cerebral area that is associated normally with registering bodily harm (Harms, 2012). That is right; your brain feels the same level of pain by undertaking a maths problem as it would if you were physically hurt.
As part of their student assessment every three years, PISA studies report that almost a third of students feel apprehensive when faced with a mathematics problem and over half of them worry about the difficulties they will face in mathematics classes. Confirming Ashcraft’s aforementioned statement, PISA found that greater anxiety strongly connects with lower mathematics scores; moreover, this apprehension increases when students’ classmates perform better than they do (OECD, 2015). However, exceptions exist, particularly in the case of East Asian students in Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, Shanghai, Singapore, and Taipei; likely pushed by authoritative “tiger mums”, these students are not only among the highest performers in the PISA mathematics assessment but also report a higher level of anxiety.
This anomaly can be attributed to a cultural factor, parents in Asian countries place a greater emphasis on effort rather than merely their child’s intellectual capabilities – this is beneficial as it helps to develop a growth mindset, which encourages intellectual development, learning from mistakes, and improved learning. Asian parents generally set high expectations and standards of achievements for their children, which results in them spending more time developing their skills and knowledge not just in mathematics but also in other school subjects (Stevenson & Lee, 1990).
The Gender Gap
Traditionally, mathematics is considered as a “masculine” aptitude and this gender typecast may cause girls to feel mathematical anxiety more acutely from a young age. There is a huge academic push for more women in the STEM fields but until educators do not address the confidence problem, this may remain a distant dream. PISA documents this gender gap in the graph below, with almost 70% of girls reporting that they worry about the difficulty of mathematics classes, as well as worrying about poor achievement. Among the oft-mentioned reasons are gender references – or gender labelling – on the mathematical questions; in fact, research studies suggest that although both sexes perform better on male-related mathematics questions, women that perform worse overall do well in female-labelled questions with the converse holding true: those who perform better overall tend to do best on male-labelled questions. One particular study pointed to the gender performance gap in tests that increases with age (Walsh et al., 1994). The threat of gender stereotyping can affect test performance and it affects men positively but women negatively.
Reducing the anxiety
Mathematics is a subject taught typically with no grey areas present – the answers are either right or wrong but the methodology for arriving at the answers can vary; the accuracy of the answers can be improved and one method may be more concise. The PISA report suggests that teaching itself is perhaps the optimal way to reduce and, ideally, relieve this apprehension. Educators can achieve this in a number of ways, chief of which include informing the students of their performance, giving feedback on their strengths and weaknesses, and suggesting ways in which the students can improve – teachers who do so consistently tend to have positive results in reducing their students’ unease (OECD, 2015). Addressing the students’ anxiety is central to unlocking their mathematical abilities and knowing the best ways to approach a mathematical problem significantly relieves their stress.
Of course, there are teaching methods that make mathematics more relevant and engaging, with active students being the best learners. One of the best ways to help students learn mathematics is leaving the solution method open-ended beyond a few simple example problems; it emphasises original thinking rather than mere formulaic manipulation. Expressing, in words, their thought process in resolving a particular problem enables students to develop metacognitive skills that compel them to rationalise their thoughts, thereby improving their problem solving and mathematical reasoning skills.
Ashcraft, M.H., 2002. Math anxiety: Personal, educational, and cognitive consequences. Directions in Psychological Science, 11, pp.181-85.
Harms, W., 2012. When People Worry about Math, the Brain Feels the Pain. UChicago News, 31 October.
OECD, 2015. Does Math Make You Anxious? PISA in Focus No.48. Paris: OECD Publishing.
Stevenson, H.W. & Lee, S., 1990. Contexts of achievement: A study of American, Chinese, and Japanese children. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 55, pp.1-119.
Walsh, M., Hickey, C. & Duffy, J., 1994. Influence of Item Content and Stereotype Situation on Gender Differences in Mathematical Problem Solving. Sex Roles, 41(3-4), pp.219-40.