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Learning and fearing mathematics

Findings from psychology and neuroscience can help educators to better understand the processes underlying children’s learning of, and feelings towards, mathematics. Sarah Buckley and Kate Reid explain.

Researchers investigating mathematical development do so from different perspectives. Education, psychology and neuroscience have focused on mathematical learning and motivation, but research in these fields has tended to be conducted independently.

Although different research strategies are employed in each discipline, similar research questions inform these approaches, and findings from these areas are complementary. Together, findings from psychology and neuroscience can be used to better understand the processes underlying children’s learning of mathematics, and to suggest how these findings might be applicable to mathematical behaviour in the classroom.

Developing number sense

There is considerable evidence that the ability to understand simple number relationships is developed in infancy, or is even innate, and is developed independent of language skills. Early-years number sense skills include an ability to rapidly identify small numbers, recognise number order, reason about simple transformations such as adding and subtracting one, exhibit counting skills and apply counting to solve number problems.

Findings from neuroscience suggest that humans possess specialised systems for processing number and separate systems for processing small and large numbers, which can be independently impaired. Children with dyscalculia, for instance, show evidence of structural and functional deficits in the part of the brain responsible for numerical estimation tasks.

Though any deficiencies in initial number sense may constrain early learning, these limits are not fixed. Training on mathematics problems is associated with pronounced changes in patterns of brain activity and corresponds with behaviour such as reduced reaction time and higher accuracy.

Moreover, different learning methods, such as learning by rote versus learning strategically, have been shown to result in different patterns of brain activity. Different teaching methods for mathematics lead to distinct behavioural and structural outcomes.

Maths anxiety

A significant barrier to learning in the mathematics classroom is anxiety. Maths anxiety predisposes students to be hyper-sensitive to mathematical stimuli, to experience fear almost automatically after they encounter mathematics and to be less capable of recruiting strategies to control this fear. The immediate impact of maths anxiety is that it impairs performance. The long-term implication of this process is that students may learn to avoid situations that involve mathematics.

According to psychological theory, the primitive fight-or-flight response is at the centre of the anxiety experience. Interventions to reduce maths anxiety must therefore help students to control their emotional reaction to mathematics. To do this it is necessary to identify the factors that lead to children feeling negatively towards the subject.

Research suggests that the development of maths anxiety is influenced by dispositional factors that students bring to the classroom and by environmental factors like teachers and peers. These factors appear to have a greater impact on females, with results from the 2003 Programme for International Student Assessment showing that Australian 15-year-old girls reported higher maths anxiety levels than boys.

These findings in relation to gender, peers and teachers suggest directions for intervention strategies. Challenging gender stereotypes and negative peer culture within the classroom, for example, enables students to develop more control over their negative emotional reactions to mathematics and inhibit the negative influence of anxiety on performance and career choices.


There is much interest in the potential impact of neuroscience research findings on classroom practice. If research findings are to be applied, they must be critically evaluated. Educational practitioners need some assurances that robust research evidence underlies any teaching practices and programs derived from neuroscience findings. Psychology provides frameworks for connecting neuroscience and education research. This type of interdisciplinary approach can suggest strategies both for improving mathematical learning among children and providing interventions when students’ achievement in mathematics is not as expected. ■

Further information:
This article is based on the conference paper, ‘Learning and Fearing Mathematics: Insights from psychology and neuroscience’, delivered by Dr Sarah Buckley and Dr Kate Reid, at the 2013 ACER Research Conference on the theme ‘How the Brain Learns: What lessons are there for teaching?’ on 5 August.

The conference proceedings, including full conference papers, are available from the ACER research repository.


About the author

Dr Kate Reid is a Research Fellow in ACER's Teaching, Learning & Transitions research program. 

More [rd] articles by Kate Reid

View selected works of Kate Reid


About the author

Dr Sarah Buckley is a Research Fellow in ACER's National Surveys research program. 

More [rd] articles by Sarah Buckley

View selected works of Sarah Buckley

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