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Seven facts you must know about maths anxiety

Here are seven facts maths teachers must know about Maths Anxiety. How should you work with students with Maths Anxiety when you teach?

Mathematics has long been perceived as a challenging subject, evoking difficulties and frustrations among students, parents, and teachers alike. Often, the struggles in this field are attributed to cognitive factors, such as lack of ability, preparation, practice, or knowledge. However, what is frequently overlooked are the significant emotional factors that can profoundly impact students' experiences with mathematics. In recent years, researchers like Denes Szűcs and Irene C. Mammarella have shed light on an important phenomenon known as "Maths Anxiety." This debilitating emotional reaction to mathematics can lead to performance difficulties and act as a discouraging obstacle, even for students with a commendable academic performance.

In this essay, we will delve into seven facts about Maths Anxiety, drawing from the research conducted by Szűcs and Mammarella, to gain a deeper understanding of its implications in the classroom. While cognitive factors are essential, we must not underestimate the role of emotions in shaping students' mathematical journey. By exploring these facts, we hope to equip teachers with valuable insights and strategies to address Maths Anxiety effectively and create a more supportive and conducive learning environment for all students. Recognizing and addressing the emotional barriers that hinder students' mathematical growth is crucial to fostering a positive attitude towards the subject and empowering students to reach their full potential.

Fact One

Maths Anxiety becomes more pronounced during secondary school.

As students transition from primary to secondary school, academic anxieties like tests and Maths Anxiety tend to separate from non-academic anxieties. In primary school, there's a strong link between general anxiety, test anxiety, Maths Anxiety, and maths performance, with higher anxiety levels corresponding to lower maths scores. However, in secondary school, the relationship becomes more complex, with some students experiencing different anxiety patterns.

Recognizing that Maths Anxiety develops differently in each child is vital. Some may carry high general anxiety from primary to secondary school without developing academic anxieties, while others may experience specific academic anxieties alongside reduced general anxiety. As teachers, understanding the intensity of students' anxiety and identifying risk factors are essential. Early interventions addressing general anxiety can have significant benefits in educational settings. You can play a pivotal role in helping students manage their emotions by starting conversations about feelings and emotions, creating a safe space for them to express anxieties.

Encourage students to identify threatening situations they may encounter in school, and discuss these situations to uncover patterns or potential triggers for anxiety. In cases where many students share similar concerns, involving a school psychologist for a more systematic assessment might be beneficial. It is also crucial for students to recognize that moderate levels of anxiety can be helpful in enhancing performance, but extreme anxiety can hinder their ability to cope with tasks.

By fostering a supportive and understanding environment, you can help students navigate their anxieties and develop effective coping mechanisms, ultimately promoting their overall well-being and academic success. Your guidance and care can make a significant difference in how students manage and overcome their anxieties, empowering them for future challenges.

Fact Two

Maths Anxiety can negatively impact students' maths performance by occupying their working memory with task-irrelevant thoughts.

Maths Anxiety can significantly impact students' performance by interfering with their mental resources needed for problem-solving. It's essential to help them recognize how anxious thoughts can negatively affect their achievements. Research from the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 2012 revealed a strong association between higher Maths Anxiety and lower maths performance in 63 out of 64 education systems tested worldwide. Even though not all students with high Maths Anxiety perform poorly, it can consume their working memory, especially during challenging tasks that require more capacity. We can support students by encouraging open discussions about emotions and thoughts related to anxious situations, enhancing their metacognitive awareness and improving performance.

Teachers should stress the importance of making mistakes as a natural part of the learning process, highlighting how errors can aid in understanding. By presenting maths as a puzzle-solving endeavour, we can foster students' interest in the subject. For older students, explaining the connection between thoughts, emotions, and behaviour can be beneficial. Teaching coping strategies like positive affirmations or deep breathing can empower them to manage anxiety effectively. On the other hand, for younger students (ages 6-8) whose metacognition is still developing, we can facilitate group discussions where they express their thoughts about difficult situations in school. Involving teachers from other subjects can create a safe space for students to share their feelings.

Guiding students to find positive thoughts to counter negative ones during challenging situations can promote a more positive mindset. By nurturing their emotional well-being and encouraging a growth mindset, we can create an environment where students feel supported and capable of overcoming Maths Anxiety, ultimately leading to improved maths performance and a more positive attitude towards the subject. Your understanding and guidance can make a significant difference in helping students manage their anxiety and excel in mathematics.

Fact Three

Girls often exhibit higher levels of Maths Anxiety than boys.

Research indicates that girls often experience higher levels of Maths Anxiety compared to boys, even when their maths achievement is similar. This gender gap in Maths Anxiety becomes evident as early as grade 2-3 in primary school, suggesting that objective indicators of maths performance do not fully account for this difference. Gender stereotypes about mathematics, where science and maths are considered male domains, may contribute to the higher Maths Anxiety in girls, leading to stereotype threat. Girls may fear confirming negative stereotypes about their abilities. Moreover, girls may report lower levels of self-confidence and self-efficacy in mathematics, both of which are linked to higher Maths Anxiety. Their overall higher levels of anxiety and increased meta-cognitive readiness may enable girls to more effectively perceive and express their anxieties.

In the classroom, promoting mixed-gender group discussions about coping with Maths Anxiety can be particularly beneficial for girls. This allows them to learn from the different coping strategies used by their male classmates. As teachers, it is crucial to be mindful of our own gender ability beliefs towards mathematics and refrain from attributing performance outcomes to children's gender. Instead, we should provide individual and gender-neutral performance assessments to ensure fairness.

To combat existing gender stereotypes about maths learning, we should share real-life examples of counter-stereotypes, showcasing successful female mathematicians and engineers. It is essential to promote STEM subjects equally to girls and boys and encourage all students to challenge gender biases related to maths learning. As teachers, we serve as reference figures for our students, and our beliefs and expectations significantly influence their behaviour and performance. By creating an inclusive and supportive environment, we can help both girls and boys develop their confidence in maths and break down barriers related to gender biases. Let us actively work to empower all students and inspire them to pursue their interests and potential in mathematics and other STEM fields. Together, we can foster a positive learning environment that nurtures the talents of all students and helps them thrive.

Fact Four

The relationship between perceived poor maths performance and Math Anxiety can form a vicious cycle.

Understanding the different ways students experience Maths Anxiety is vital. Some may initially believe they can't grasp maths, leading to avoidance of maths-related activities, while others may experience high Maths Anxiety that negatively impacts their performance, creating a cycle. It's crucial to recognize each child's subjectively perceived performance level, as even well-performing students may compare themselves negatively or have unrealistic expectations. For students with cognitive Maths Learning Difficulties, the chances of experiencing high Maths Anxiety are doubled due to extreme negative feedback on their performance. Therefore, creating a supportive environment that fosters confidence and reduces anxiety is essential.

In the classroom, understanding students' beliefs about mathematics and gradually modifying these beliefs to align with increasing performance goals can be beneficial. Engage in discussions with students to challenge false beliefs and provide real-world examples to improve their self-competence. Focus on feedback that acknowledges effort and improvement rather than solely comparing performance to others, emphasising the learning process and effort invested. For students with Maths Learning Difficulties, include assignments with tasks they can solve correctly to increase self-efficacy and self-confidence. Avoiding time pressure for these students can also reduce Maths Anxiety levels, allowing them to focus better on the task at hand.

When introducing new mathematical concepts, use concrete examples and encourage students to discover various problem-solving strategies to enhance understanding and promote confidence. By fostering a positive and encouraging learning environment, we can help students break free from the cycle of Maths Anxiety and perceived poor performance, empowering them to develop a stronger foundation in mathematics. Gradual confidence-building is key in the fight against Maths Anxiety, and with your support and guidance, students can grow in their mathematical abilities and overcome any challenges they may face. Your role as a supportive teacher can make a significant difference in helping students develop a positive mindset towards maths and gain the confidence to tackle mathematical challenges with ease.

Fact Five

Emotional and cognitive mathematics problems are distinct.

It's important to note that approximately 80% of children with high Maths Anxiety are actually high achievers in maths. While moderate levels of anxiety can be beneficial for performance, high levels of Maths Anxiety may hinder otherwise competent children from reaching their full potential in mathematics. Therefore, addressing the Maths Anxiety and potential emotional difficulties of these high-achieving students is crucial. Interestingly, about 80% of low-achieving children with Mathematics Learning Difficulty or Developmental Dyscalculia do not experience high Maths Anxiety. This suggests that these poorly performing students may not have internalised values related to maths performance or lack the meta-cognitive abilities for self-reflection.

In the classroom, it is essential to be vigilant for signs of high Maths Anxiety in well-performing students who may reject further maths education opportunities. This behaviour could indicate underlying anxiety that needs attention. Understanding how students value maths is also crucial, and collecting valuations and self-assessments before and after exams can provide insight into their perceptions of their abilities. Group discussions on competence beliefs and their relation to actual performance can be helpful for students experiencing a discrepancy between their beliefs and performance.

Using real-world examples in maths exercises, especially for weaker students, can show that mathematics can be enjoyable and useful. Playful games demonstrating the use of maths in everyday situations can alleviate Maths Anxiety in young children, while relating homework and assignments to real-life scenarios can improve students' intrinsic motivation to learn mathematics. Additionally, discussing how mathematics can be helpful in various occupations and job choices can further enhance students' interest in the subject.

By understanding and addressing emotional and cognitive aspects of mathematics learning, we can create a supportive and engaging learning environment that helps all students reach their full potential in mathematics. Let us be vigilant in identifying signs of high Maths Anxiety in well-performing students and foster a positive and relevant approach to teaching maths, ensuring that each student feels confident and motivated to excel in this important subject. Your attention and support in addressing students' emotional well-being can make a significant impact on their mathematical journey.

Fact Six

Understanding the interpretation of experiences is crucial in understanding the origins of Maths Anxiety.

Research indicates that students with low and high Maths Anxiety may experience similar events in school but interpret them differently. Those with high Maths Anxiety often believe that maths work is beyond their capabilities, fear being asked maths questions in front of the class, and compare their work unfavourably with peers and siblings. Older students may experience increased challenges and anxiety when placed in higher achievement groups. On the other hand, students with low Maths Anxiety interpret negative experiences more positively and attribute success to resilience and high self-efficacy.

When assigning students to study groups, it's essential to do so with care, ensuring that the narrative is positive and motivating for lower-achieving students while setting realistic expectations for those moved to higher-achievement groups. Creating small work-groups with mixed abilities from time to time can be beneficial, allowing lower-achieving students to learn from higher achievers and promoting pro-social attitudes among high achievers.

In schools, teaching students methods of coping with increased stress before exams and when responding to questions in front of the class is crucial. Fostering an environment where making errors is not intimidating and is corrected constructively, while strictly prohibiting any form of bullying, is important. Students should understand that responding quickly to questions is more about test performance than good mathematics, and the value of sustained and focused work should be emphasised, promoting perseverance for progress.

By being mindful of students' interpretations and experiences, we can create a supportive and encouraging learning environment that helps reduce Maths Anxiety and promotes a positive attitude towards mathematics. Encouraging resilience, providing constructive feedback, and promoting a growth mindset can empower students to overcome challenges and develop a stronger foundation in mathematics. Let us continue to support our students in their maths journey, nurturing their confidence and enthusiasm for learning. Your attentiveness and support can make a significant impact on how students perceive and approach mathematics, fostering a love for the subject and greater success in their academic pursuits.

Fact Seven

Teachers and the school environment play a crucial role in shaping Maths Anxiety in students.

As Maths Anxiety becomes a more specific academic anxiety in secondary school, we, as teachers, become the most important role models in this environment. It's crucial to evaluate whether we have high Maths Anxiety ourselves, as our beliefs and anxiety can influence our students. Research reveals that many primary school teachers may have high Maths Anxiety, and this could negatively impact their students' performance, especially for female students when female teachers have high Maths Anxiety. To address this, schools should prioritise implementing training programs to close subject knowledge and teaching methodology gaps. Uncertainty in subject knowledge can induce Maths Anxiety in teachers, and training programs could address this issue through honest group discussions.

For schools facing challenges in hiring well-qualified maths teachers, organising sessions where more experienced colleagues share their knowledge and experience can be beneficial, as long as they are not anxiety-inducing triggers for teachers with lesser maths subject knowledge. In the classroom, we should treat challenging student questions as opportunities to grow and learn, acknowledging uncertainty and using available resources to find accurate responses. Assessing our own communication skills and identifying any gaps can help maintain balanced communication with our students. It's essential to communicate fairly with all children, ensuring that personal preferences or biases do not disadvantage any student.

Furthermore, schools should decide on best practice teaching methods and solution strategies to be taught to children. Teachers may have different preferences based on their subject knowledge and training, so it's crucial to discuss the rationale for specific strategies with students and clearly state the reasons behind these choices. By being aware of our own Maths Anxiety and beliefs, addressing knowledge gaps, and promoting open and fair communication with our students, we can create a supportive and encouraging learning environment that fosters confidence and reduces Maths Anxiety in mathematics. Let us continuously strive to improve our teaching methods, engage in professional development, and prioritise the growth and success of our students. Together, we can empower them to overcome challenges and develop a positive attitude towards mathematics. Your dedication to professional growth and commitment to creating a positive learning environment can make a profound impact on your students' mathematical journey.

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