Maths Anxiety: And how to overcome it

“No single branch of a child’s education has a greater effect than mathematics.”

– Plato, “Laws”

Does the mention of maths bring on school flashbacks, and panic, as you stare at the symbols behind the teacher? Maybe you get the sweats when splitting a restaurant bill. If so, you could be suffering from maths anxiety.

It is a problem for pupils across the world, holding them back and hampering their chances of mathematical success, according to a report from the University of Western Ontario in Canada. The study, the largest of its kind, says a lack of trust in a teacher’s mathematical ability is seen as the main cause; too much homework and a lack of help from parents are also mentioned.

And there’s bad news close to home. “England’s results suggest that our secondary pupils are among the most seriously affected by maths anxiety,” said Professor Margaret Brown, president of the Maths Anxiety Trust. According to a report by National Numeracy, nearly half the working-age population has the numeracy skills expected of a primary school child.

Maths anxiety is an emotional reaction. Sufferers experience tension. They avoid situations involving the use of numbers. It is not a reflection of ability. In a study by the Centre for Neuroscience in Education at Cambridge, more than three quarters of children experiencing maths anxiety were at least normal achievers more generally.

The answer: back to basics, building up practice in mental fluency.

Maths depends on the building blocks being solid, grasping the previous technique before moving to the next one. A common source of anxiety is lack of confidence in the underlying skills that a more difficult topic needs.

The most fundamental building block is core numeracy: numbers, times tables and mental addition and subtraction. Mental fluency comes from practice rather than intelligence. Children progress by “seeing” the maths.

The different ways different teachers explain things can stop progress. The best method is to build understanding using skills the pupil has already mastered, rather than to just apply new rules. Neurologists and linguists say that our brains are wired to understand language, and mathematics can be viewed in the same way – stage by stage. One significant problem is cultural attitudes, including the common perception that maths isn’t needed in daily life. This perpetuates a cycle: condoning poor maths performance leads to maths anxiety, and maths anxiety leads to poor performance.

Maths will be increasingly used as algorithms take hold of much of our lives. Decision trees embedded within machine learning will make business decisions that will affect us. Good numeracy is fundamental to our everyday life, and nobody is a “maths person” or a “non-maths person.”

Practice, as with most things, is the key – it builds resilience and confidence, improves recall, increases speed and leads to a growing sense of a particular skill becoming second nature. Smaller chunks of study over a longer period of time are more effective than the opposite, and help with maths anxiety before exams.

Finally, find the right resources – of which there are many. There are dozens of decent sites and apps to help. Corbett Maths, Maths Genie, Dr Frost, Barton, TES, MathsBot, Go-Teach-Maths, BBC Bitesize, to name a few. YouTube is full of clearly worked examples of maths problems. Mix up where you get your practice questions from. Some resources, such as Khan Academy, provide automatic feedback; Times Tables Rock Stars turns maths into a fun computer game. Because maths should be fun, not something to fear. Also, it has elegant beauty.

(Source: Jamie Frost, The Sunday Times)