‘People are scared of looking foolish’: how maths anxiety is holding us back
Two in three students who worry about maths will eventually succeed at the subject. But does this lack of confidence limit career prospects?
Nearly everyone will know they have felt anxious about a maths question at some time in their lives. What may not seem so obvious is that many other people have felt the same way and that maths anxiety is a real problem.
So much so that the Maths Anxiety Trust has been set up to raise awareness of the issue. It points out the problem could be contributing to a quarter of 11-year-olds being below the standard expected of their age group and nearly a third of students failing to obtain a grade 4 (grade C in the old grading system) or higher in maths GCSE exams.
The trust believes these statistics reveal what academics have known for many years. A poll for the trust, conducted last year by Ipsos Mori, found more than a third of 15- to 24- year-olds feel anxious when shown a maths problem. The same applies to one in five British adults.
Despite this high prevalence, the same research showed that 80% of adults have never heard of the term maths anxiety.
This comes as little surprise to Celia Hoyles, professor of mathematics education at University College London (UCL). She helps with the trust’s work because she feels it is vital people recognise maths anxiety is real and needs to be addressed if more young people are to study for qualifications that lead to careers in Stem industries.
“With maths, there’s a right or a wrong answer and that’s why people can feel so anxious – they’re scared of looking foolish,” she says.
“It’s why people end up thinking they’re not good at maths, which means we get fewer people studying it after GCSE.”
One issue that needs to be tackled is how maths is taught. Hoyles says that experts need to think beyond algebra and equations and understand how they can help young people realise that maths can be used to solve problems and widen their career choices.
“We need teachers to be great communicators as well as fantastic maths teachers,” she says. “That can be tough because we’ve always had a shortage of great maths teachers in the country, as there are so many other careers available to people who are qualified to teach maths. We need teachers to be empathetic and to see other points of view, to understand where pupils are finding aspects of the subject difficult so they can be encouraged to overcome those hurdles.”
This is a crucial point for Ros McLellan, lecturer in teacher education and development at the University of Cambridge. She was recently part of a research team from the university that worked with the Nuffield Foundation to better understand maths anxiety.
The study included a quantitative overview of maths standards and anxiety, as well as qualitative work with individual primary and secondary school pupils who kept diaries of their experiences studying the subject.
“We found that two in three of the pupils who were living with maths anxietywere actually doing well in the subject,” McLellan says.
“This makes it tricky because it can mean that parents and teachers aren’t aware of a child’s anxiety. However, it does mean that students are more likely to drop the subject and not take it up at A-level or beyond.”
The other major take-out for McLellan was more encouraging: maths anxiety can come and go.
“People can feel maths anxiety and then overcome it,” she says.
“McLellan’s advice is to instil in children that if they don’t understand a maths problem, that doesn’t mean they’re bad at the subject.
Teachers must also help pupils overcome difficulties and never allow them to feel like they are no good at the subject. It’s that feeling of failure that can lead to maths anxiety and young people dropping the subject and, in so doing, limiting their future career prospects in the Stem industries.
Experience: ‘Maths creates so many opportunities’
Schools are short of maths teachers. Georgie Hart, education director at Sparx, asks if education technology offers a solution
Dr Georgie Hart was a reluctant mathematician – English was her favourite subject at school, but she took a maths degree because she was good at it. But not until maths research led her to work for the World Health Organization did she begin to truly enjoy herself.
“I was analysing which interventions against tuberculosis were most effective. That was the moment I fell in love with maths. I’d discovered the little-known area of operational research – which is about using statistics and maths to make better decisions – with a massive emphasis on human interaction with technology. I saw how maths could solve real-world problems.”
After a PhD in operational research, she’s been working with education experts and coders for the past eight years to perfect education technology, which helps secondary school children learn maths.
She’s spent enough time in classrooms to know the value of good teaching. “You’ll never replace the richness of teachers interacting with pupils. But even the best teacher in the world can’t know what every pupil gets stuck on at any moment.”
She’s now education director at technology company Sparx, where specialists have spent eight years developing education technology, which tailors maths tasks to individuals’ differing abilities – in line with a wider shift in education towards personalising lessons to stretch every pupil at whatever stage they are.
“We knew technology could make a difference but we didn’t know exactly how,” says Hart. “Over time, we’ve been brave and thrown out what doesn’t work, and have drawn on cognitive science and learning research, and have eventually built something that teachers love using.”
UK schools have been chronically short of highly qualified maths teachers, and disadvantaged pupils haven’t performed as well as the national average – some 58% of students eligible for free school meals have failed to achieve maths GCSE grade A*-C (now 9-4).
But technology in the classroom often gets teachers and parents hot under the collar, prompting dire predictions of “robot teachers” replacing real people – and many education technology products have been launched with great fanfare in the past few years only to fall by the wayside. Simply digitising how maths is taught with appealing graphics and games isn’t enough, says Hart – learning technology needs to be designed with deep understanding of how pupils learn and a healthy reality check around how teachers want to use it.
Beware of bandying terms such as artificial intelligence (AI), she says. “AI can be a very disempowering term for teachers, it’s not helpful. But the concept of adaptive teaching allows teachers to do more of the job they love.” And data doesn’t always give the full picture, she says. “If a pupil scores highly at, say, ratios, but still feels very unsure, a teacher needs to know that. Or if a child is overconfident on a subject, but scores badly, a teacher must address that too. You need human intervention; it can’t just be a case of ‘the computer says no’. It has to be a blend of a human being and technology.”
Through thousands of individually made video tutorials, Sparx helps explain concepts and provides an hour of bespoke maths homework for each student every week. “So if a child is really strong, he or she can explore, while others can use the video to address gaps in their knowledge,” says Hart.
She’d like to see more links between industry and schools to inspire pupils and bring the maths curriculum to life. As a young mathematician, careers advisers pushed her towards accountancy – but, on graduation, she happily discovered her options were far broader. “Maths genuinely creates so many opportunities.”
And if teachers could communicate the relevance of trigonometry, algebra, and other mathematical concepts in everyday life, then pupils could be more inspired earlier on, she says. “How does an architect use maths, for instance? Having someone say why that fractions class could be useful in the future would be so worthwhile.”