Maths anxiety – it’s not just students that can find the going tough

Maths anxiety, those feelings of tension, nervousness and worry associated with carrying out mathematical tasks, can impact on an individual’s ability to demonstrate their maths capability and is a significant barrier to learning. Maths anxiety can also lead people to avoid mathematics activities and careers. Not only affecting students, maths anxiety is prevalent amongst primary school teachers and pre-service teachers as well. Primary teachers experiencing maths anxiety, are known to spend less time teaching maths while research suggests that teachers can pass their anxiety on to their students.

The SLRC’s uniquely multi-disciplinary approach brought together neuroscience, psychology and education research from the outset. The project was led by Dr Sue Thomson and Dr Sarah Buckley from the Australian Council for Education Research with Professor Merrilyn Goos (UQ) and Professor Ottmar Lipp (Curtin University). The researchers demonstrated that integrating multiple disciplinary perspectives enables a better understanding of the forms and effects of maths anxiety, thereby enabling better targeting of possible intervention strategies.

SLRC research focused on maths anxiety in pre-service teachers, with a view that if effective strategies could be developed to help pre-service teachers manage maths anxiety then the benefits could accrue throughout their coming career, to the benefit of future students. The project involved participants with and without self-reported maths anxiety undertaking a series of maths tasks while undergoing physiological monitoring and reporting their anxiety levels. Participants later took part in workshops to build their understanding of maths anxiety and to learn strategies to reduce anxiety. Participants were then surveyed after the workshop interventions to assess the effectiveness in reducing anxiety.

The face-to-face workshops were highly regarded by participants with strong agreement that the workshop was useful in building understanding of maths anxiety and in learning strategies to deal with maths anxiety. Comments from participants about the workshop included: “really interesting information that can be used in the classroom”, “I really valued the clear explanations and reinforcement of learning. The scenarios at the end were particularly useful for consomaths-anx-jpeglidating what we learnt. The strategies for myself and the classroom were also very clear and translatable”.

To date this research has generated a prototype maths anxiety training module, which is soon to be trialled. Future funding would enable the module to be developed beyond that prototype, ensuring an evidence-based, scientifically validated and extensively tested resource ready to be embedded as part of primary teacher training. Future SLRC research would also focus on adapting the content for the online module to make it suitable for reducing maths anxiety among in-service teachers and in students and parents as well.