Maths anxiety is a genuine and pervasive issue in education. It goes far beyond a simple aversion to numbers and can manifest as a profound fear or dread of maths, hindering the ability to perform and limiting educational and career choices, writes Dr Rebecca Marrone from UniSA’s Centre for Change and Complexity in Learning.
One of the more intriguing dimensions of maths anxiety is gender. Studies consistently show that girls, on average, report higher levels of maths anxiety than boys. This disparity exists even when girls perform as well as or even outpace their male counterparts in maths courses. So, the question arises: where do gender differences originate, and how can educators address them?
Cultural and societal beliefs play a significant role in shaping our perceptions about gender. Many girls, often subtly, are influenced to believe that they might not be as ‘naturally’ adept at maths as boys. And even if not explicitly stated, these stereotypes can diminish confidence and heighten maths anxiety.
This can also happen in the classroom. For example, when boys face challenges in maths, their struggles may be attributed to a lack of effort. Yet when girls struggle this can be inaccurately seen as a lack of ability. And while this may be unintentional, such gendered stereotypes can have profound effects on how children perceive themselves and their abilities.
A promising approach to addressing some of these issues is through creativity. By presenting maths education in new and interesting ways, and by reshaping how problems are approached and introduced, students can engage with the material on a deeper and more intuitive level. And this helps abstract concepts feel more relatable and less daunting.
Similarly, teachers can actively challenge gender stereotypes. For instance, it’s essential to avoid making generalised statements implying that one gender is better than another in maths. By highlighting achievements across genders and using examples of successful women mathematicians and scientists in lessons, teachers can proactively address gender stereotypes while inspiring and motivating their students.
Incorporating creative problem-solving is another tactic. When teachers introduce maths problems that relate to real-world scenarios or leverage storytelling, they make maths more relatable. Making these abstract concepts tangible can help demystify them and reduce worry and anxiety.
Feedback in the classroom should always be constructive and based on effort rather than innate ability. Compliments like: “You worked hard on this problem, and it shows,” can be far more beneficial than generic praises of intelligence.
Moreover, starting a maths class with brief mindfulness exercises or deep-breathing techniques can help students find their focus and reduce anxiety. It’s helpful to establish a supportive classroom environment where mistakes are perceived as learning opportunities rather than failures. Encouraging collaboration and peer tutoring can provide students with diverse perspectives on problem-solving.
Risk-taking, especially for girls who might be more hesitant due to fear of failure, should also be encouraged. The act of attempting difficult maths problems and celebrating the effort, irrespective of the outcome, can be empowering.
Parents can also play a pivotal role by maintaining a positive attitude towards maths at home and steer clear of perpetuating negative stereotypes. And this can be supported by teachers, who can help educate parents about maths anxiety and its implications.
Lastly, recognising that not all students respond to interventions uniformly is crucial. While some might benefit from additional tutoring, others might thrive with confidence-building activities or even counselling.
There’s no doubt that maths anxiety, especially with its gendered nuances, can have profound and lasting impacts on learners. By weaving creativity into the classroom and reshaping how problems are presented, educators can foster a more engaging and less intimidating environment. Every student, regardless of gender, possesses the potential to participate in mathematics. It’s our responsibility, as educators, to nurture and unlock that potential.