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Deconstructing maths anxiety

24 July 2013

Anxiety is a significant barrier to learning in the mathematics classroom but, in order to overcome it, we must first understand it.

In an ACER Occasional Essay titled ‘Deconstructing maths anxiety: Helping students to develop a positive attitude towards learning maths’, ACER Research Fellow Dr Sarah Buckley describes the neurological, psychological and environmental factors that lead to the feelings of anxiety felt by an estimated 20 per cent of the population when confronted with mathematical tasks.

‘Understanding maths anxiety is the first step in conquering it,’ Dr Buckley said.

Dr Buckley explains that anxiety is experienced when a person highly values a task but feels that they have no control over it. In the short term, a student’s inability to manage that anxiety leads to a drop in maths performance. The long-term impact is the development of a negative attitude towards maths and the avoidance of subjects, courses and careers that involve maths, thereby limiting students’ opportunities and career pathways.

According to Dr Buckley, students’ feelings of lack of control could stem from the idea that maths is difficult but can also be due to cultural norms, such as negative stereotypes about image and gender.

‘Even though mathematics ability is considered an indicator of intelligence, it is unfortunately socially acceptable – in some cases even seen as desirable – to show a lack of interest or ability in maths,’ Dr Buckley said.

Dr Buckley believes that helping anxious students to conquer their fear will enable them to fulfil their maths potential and broaden their career options, to the benefit of the Australian economy.

‘Once teachers and parents understand how maths anxiety develops in children, they have the opportunity to dispel negative stereotypes and myths, model positive attitudes towards maths and help create a supportive classroom environment that encourages children to have a go without fear,’ Dr Buckley said.

Dr Buckley will present on the topic of maths anxiety at the 2013 ACER Research Conference in Melbourne on Monday 5 August. The conference, on the theme ‘How the Brain Learns: What lessons are there for teaching?’ runs from 4-6 August. ■

Read the full paper:
‘Deconstructing maths anxiety: Helping students to develop a positive attitude towards learning maths’, by Dr Sarah Buckley, is available to read in HTML or PDF format.

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