Report examines origins and nature of 'math anxiety'

A recent report from the University of Cambridge reveals that teachers and parents may inadvertently play a role in a child's development of 'math anxiety' and that girls tend to be more affected than boys.

Mathematics is often considered a hard subject by elementary and secondary school students, but not all difficulties with the subject result from cognitive difficulties. Many students -- and adults -- experience feelings of anxiety, apprehension, tension or discomfort when confronted by a problem requiring math.

The Studies

The report summarized the research of several studies and found that girls had higher levels of both math anxiety and general anxiety. Furthermore, researchers found that students held a general belief that math was more difficult than other subjects. This contributed to students' math anxiety and a loss of confidence by citing poor test scores or negative comparisons to peers or siblings.


The researchers found several common issues among students: the role of their teachers and parents in their development of math anxiety. Elementary students referred to instances where they had been confused by different teaching methods, while secondary students commented on poor interpersonal relations.

Specifically, secondary students indicated that the transition from elementary school to secondary school had been a cause of math anxiety as the work seemed to more difficult, the homework load increased, and they felt greater greater pressure from tests, particularly the SATS.

Math anxiety and performance

Math anxiety does not effect only children with low math ability. In fact, more than three-quarters (77%) of children with high math anxiety scored normal to high on curriculum maths tests. The researchers explain that because these students perform well at tests, their math anxiety is at high risk of going unnoticed by teachers and parents. This is particularly true if teachers and parents are not considering emotional factors and only looking at performance. However, due to their anxiety these high achieving students may avoid going on to work in STEM fields.


In their recommendations, the researchers highlight "the need for teachers to be conscious that an individual's maths anxiety likely affects their mathematics performance. Teachers and parents also need to be aware that their own maths anxiety might influence their students' or child's maths anxiety and that gendered stereotypes about mathematics suitability and ability might contribute to the gender gap in maths performance."

Furthermore, the researchers recommend that parents and teachers become "mindful of how they may unwittingly contribute to a child's maths anxiety. Tackling their own anxieties and belief systems in maths might be the first step to helping their children or students."

Josh Hillman, Director of Education at the Nuffield Foundation, said: "Mathematical achievement is valuable in its own right, as a foundation for many other subjects and as an important predictor of future academic outcomes, employment opportunities and even health. Maths anxiety can severely disrupt students' performance in the subject in both primary and secondary school. But importantly - and surprisingly - this new research suggests that the majority of students experiencing maths anxiety have normal to high maths ability. We hope that the report's recommendations will inform the design of school and home-based interventions and approaches to prevent maths anxiety developing in the first place."

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Article reposted with permission from University of Cambrige