Dealing with Maths Anxiety: How to Improve Performance in Maths
…the relationship between anxiety and performance needs to be nurtured from a child’s early years, not kept a secret to be unveiled on an unassuming parent….”
Maths – an unavoidable, essential component of the world and our daily lives.
I was mortified to be told at a Parents’ Evening ten years ago by an unenthusiastic maths teacher (in front of my horrified parents), that I was “number blind with whom there is very little hope”… Not the vote of confidence one would recommend for a 4th form student on the eve of their mock GCSEs. With almost immediate effect I was moved into a different class and engaged the support of a mentor. He lifted the numbers and equations straight off the page and into a mode that I could visualise and understand. Maths became beautiful and, as my engagement with the subject evolved, so did my performance.
It is now clear that maths anxiety (MA) had previously taken hold, and I was preventing myself from engaging with the subject at a deeper level. Maths anxiety is defined as a feeling of anxiety or tension, which occurs directly in response to solving maths problems and manipulating numbers in academic settings or in everyday life. It differs from test anxiety, although the two have been shown to correlate. MA may manifest itself at a relatively young age, as early as primary school, and shows gender differences, with girls typically being more anxious than boys. MA may be independent of maths ability – in other words, it is possible to be good at maths and still experience MA; however, MA and performance have been shown to be related, in that high levels of anxiety typically correlate with poor maths performance and an avoidance of maths.
One of the major questions surrounding the phenomenon of MA is of the direction of causation. Do high levels of anxiety cause poor performance, or is it the other way around? Determining the nature of this relationship is difficult; although researchers generally agree about the effects of MA on performance, less is known about the causes of MA. It has been proposed that this is a circular relationship, with poor performance and anxiety feeding into each other; some researchers theorise that lack of ability might be the major cause of MA, whilst others argue that the direction of causation runs the other way. As such, an individual’s belief about their maths ability has great affect on their performance.
It’s likely that this results in avoidance and lack of [desire to] practice, which in turn reduces performance in maths. High levels of anxiety also reduce working memory capacity in individuals who are asked to solve maths problems that they consider difficult. On easy tasks, which involve simple retrieval (e.g. knowing that 2+3=5), subjects with high anxiety perform as well as those with low anxiety. However, in non-retrieval considered more difficult that require complex cognitive processes, they are impaired. The growth versus fixed mindset approach has been well documented and the differences couldn’t be truer with maths anxiety.
Maths anxiety and maths performance are certainly related, with all available research showing correlations between the two. There is increasing evidence showing how performance can intercede MA, to such a degree that a bi-directional relationship to maths must be recognised before any improvement can take place. This relationship between anxiety and performance needs therefore to be nurtured from a child’s early years, not kept a secret to be unveiled on an unassuming parents’ evening, or even swept under the carpet in the hope that hours of tuition will help mediate any anxiety.
As MA and maths performance show evidence of a causal link in both directions, the relationship can be described as circular. It is therefore invaluable for a child with demonstrative MA to positively restructure and rebuild their self-image in the arena of mathematics, to one of capability and genuine enjoyment of the subject. In doing so, the circularity of perception and performance has the potential to be positively affected. This child-centric approach is one of the focused methods by which an Oppidan Mentor will realign the relationship between the self and academia.
Once the gorge of geometry is crossed, and when one feels comfortable in the arena of algebra, the cosmos of calculus opens up; the World is one’s oyster – unlocked and ready to be discovered.
By Olivia Buckland
Olivia graduated from Cambridge University (English & Education) in 2018 and joined Oppidan in December. Olivia is Oppidan’s Partnership Manager and in charge of school and commercial partners.