What to do when students feel anxious about maths?
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What to do when students feel anxious about maths?

Researchers from the Centre for Change and Complexity in Learning at UniSA discuss the complex nature of maths anxiety – and how it might actually be anxiety about assessment instead.

“I hate maths” and “Maths stresses me out” are statements that we commonly hear in secondary school. These ill feelings towards maths may be linked to a phobia called ‘mathematics anxiety’, which negatively impacts learning and leads students to dread and even avoid anything that has to do with mathematics.

Unfortunately, mathematics anxiety affects about a third of Australian secondary school students, and responses to this increase in anxiety are currently limited.

So why do students feel so anxious about maths?

We sought to understand the causes of maths anxiety in a recent study. To do so, we collected data from Year 7 and Year 9 students from a South Australian school that is actively rethinking and adapting mathematics education by engaging innovative pedagogies to tackle maths anxiety. We evaluated students’ attitudes towards various school subjects – including perceived difficulty, enjoyment and anxiety, and the anxiety they perceive when learning maths and taking maths tests.

It’s not the maths – it’s the test

We found that Year 9 students viewed mathematics as more difficult and less enjoyable than most of their subjects and reported higher anxiety towards maths than any other subject. Interestingly, this same trend wasn’t seen in Year 7 students, which means the highly reported maths anxiety developed in students between Years 7 and 9.

When looking more closely at mathematics anxiety, we found that it manifests in students in distinct ways. Surprisingly, students reported that their anxiety was predominantly directed towards maths assessments, not maths itself. Year 9 students did not report being more anxious about learning to do mathematics than their Year 7 peers, nor did they feel more anxious about doing maths in general, but the Year 9 students clearly felt more anxious about maths assessments specifically.

We also found that this maths assessment anxiety was even more pronounced in female students than male students.

Clearly, the underlying causes of mathematics assessment anxiety are multiple and multifaceted. So, what can we, as educators, do to respond to maths assessment anxiety?

‘Stop and think’ to address test anxiety

In response to these complex problems, our research seeks to bring teachers and researchers together to explore the best way to address these challenges in specific school contexts.

Our research team at the Centre for Change and Complexity in Learning (C3L) works with teachers in South Australia to co-design a range of pedagogical strategies aimed at developing executive function ‘stop and think’ skills – basic cognitive processes like inhibition control, working memory and cognitive flexibility – which are foundational to effective self-regulated learning.

Inhibition control is the ‘stop’ bit of ‘stop and think’ as it allows students to stop acting impulsively or prematurely. Often, a student will approach a test or problem and say “no, it’s too hard, I can’t do this” and give up. Instead, good inhibition control allows them to stop, take a breath, and have a go.

The ‘think’ parts of ‘stop and think’ include working memory and cognitive flexibility. Working memory allows students to hold and manipulate information in their mind as they are solving a maths problem.

Cognitive flexibility allows students to explore different approaches or different solutions to solve a maths problem. These skills can give students the confidence to overcome maths assessment anxiety.

What does this mean for PISA assessment?

These finding are important at a time when the Australian Curriculum is being revised – mathematics are being heavily debated. This debate inevitably tends to focus on Australia’s performance in the OECD’s PISA assessment, which assesses the mathematical ability of 15-year-old students who are typically in Year 9.

However, our findings suggest the need for a nuanced response to the PISA results; students who perform poorly on PISA maths assessments may not be bad at maths, they may just be prohibitively anxious about the test. This has important implications for how we respond in the provision of support for students. Ironically, more emphasis on exam preparation may counter-productively increase mathematics anxiety by building test anxiety into a ‘habit’. This would likely, then, have an unintended negative impact on PISA outcomes.

Maths assessment anxiety is a major barrier to students engaging in maths, but the ‘stop and think’ skills allow students to regulate their learning, thinking and emotions when they have to take a maths test.

For further information visit, Education Futures, University of South Australia.

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