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Maths Anxiety: The Fear Factor in the Mathematics Classroom

New Zealand Journal of Teachers’ Work, Volume 9, Issue 1, 6-15, 2012

JULIE WHYTE

GLENDA ANTHONY

Massey University

ABSTRACT

Currently, there is a strong political focus in New Zealand on a need to increase

the mathematical literacy levels for all students. In New Zealand, one solution

being widely promoted is to ‘accelerate’ the learning of struggling students. In

looking more closely at why some students may be struggling, it is timely to

consider the role of maths anxiety and its impact on students’ learning practices

and outcomes. This literature review highlights potential origins of maths anxiety

and how teachers might assist in reducing maths anxiety in students.

INTRODUCTION

In New Zealand we have an increasingly diverse student population.

Despite large scale numeracy initiatives across primary and secondary schools

there remains ongoing concern at the levels of underachievement for those

students who are from disadvantaged backgrounds – most notably Pasifika and

Māori (Young-Loveridge, 2010). At the national level, policy is directing attention

to monitoring student achievement and progress levels, lifting student

achievement through the use of National Standards, and developing teachers’

pedagogical content knowledge (Ministry of Education, 2009). However, to date,

there is little policy direction concerning the affective and social outcomes of

learning mathematics, especially in relation to those students who are most

vulnerable in our classrooms. The most recent National Education Monitoring

Project (NEMP) results (Crooks, Smith & Flockton, 2010) assert that

mathematics rates highly in popularity stakes for Year 4 and Year 8 students,

with at least 85 percent of students in both years being positive about doing

mathematics at school. At the secondary level, the Program for International

Student Assessment (PISA) also reveals positive ratings for measures of maths

self-concept and self-efficacy by New Zealand students in comparison to

students from a range of other countries (Lee, 2009). But do these positive

results mean that all students in New Zealand classrooms are free from

mathematics anxieties and fears? The response to that question must be ‘highly

unlikely’.

In the New Zealand educational context, it is argued that in times of

mathematics reforms that advocate public sharing of one’s mathematical

thinking, collaborative group inquiry processes, and standards-based

Maths Anxiety: The Fear Factor in the Mathematics Classroom 7

assessment and accountability, it is critical that teachers monitor students’

dispositions towards mathematics and mathematics learning (Hunter &

Anthony, 2011). Essentially, teachers must have an awareness and

understanding of maths anxiety, and develop an ability to assist maths anxious

students.

Mathematics anxiety, considered a fear or phobia, produces ‘a negative

response specific to the learning, or doing, of mathematical activities that

interferes with performance’ (Whyte, 2009, p. 4). Closer examination of maths

anxiety reveals two general forms of anxiety: trait and state (Miller & Bischel,

2004). Trait anxiety describes the vulnerability to stress that an individual brings

to a situation. State anxiety refers to the actual situational stress experienced

that is specific to personally stressful or fearful circumstances. Research also

notes that maths anxiety can affect individuals in varying ways, inducing a

cognitive, affective, or physical reaction. For example, a cognitive reaction may

involve negative self-talk, ‘blanking out’, and avoidance; an affective reaction

may be characterised by distrust of ability, fear of looking stupid, and loss of

self-esteem; and a physical reaction may be evidenced by perspiring, a boost in

one’s heart rate, tenseness, or nausea (Freiberg, 2005). ‘If mathematics makes

a student feel anxious … [the learning and teaching of mathematics] will be

marked with negative emotions and bodily sensations’ (Zambo & Zambo, 2006,

p. 15) and these may have a powerful and long-lasting effect on learning

mathematics (ibid).

This literature review will highlight the potential origins of maths anxiety,

and how teachers might mitigate maths anxiety within their classroom and for

their students.

POTENTIAL ORIGINS OF MATHS ANXIETY

Maths anxiety can have multiple origins and, as noted by Shields (2005),

can be perpetuated in the home, society, and the classroom.

The home

In the home, parents who themselves suffer maths anxiety can

unintentionally transfer such anxiety to their children. In the context of doing

mathematics, the emotions expressed by one will inevitably and reciprocally

shape the other within parent-child interactions (Else-Quest, Hyde, & Hejmadi,

2008). For example, children who are reproached for their errors may develop a

fear of taking risks and exploring new possibilities, and may start hating

mathematics. Parental disappointment and despair are especially demoralising

due to the value placed on the high positive regard of parents by children

(Dossel, 1993), while parents giving mathematics low status or applying

pressure to children may also contribute to the development of maths anxiety

(Fraser & Honeyford, 2000). Stolpa (2004) also identifies how parents may

unintentionally raise maths anxiety in their children by providing them with an

excuse to stop trying when they are frustrated or upset due to difficulties with a

mathematical task. A response from parents, such as ‘Don’t worry, I’ve never

understood fractions’ or ‘Never mind, maths was always tricky for me at school

too’, plants a seed that may grow into a strong belief for children that they are

incapable of learning mathematics. High achievers are not immune to pressures

from parents. Over-bearing parental pressure for success or concern about the

Julie Whyte & Glenda Anthony 8

difficulty of mathematics for their children (Bernstein, Coté-Bonanno, Reilly,

Carver, & Doremus, 1995) may contribute to maths anxiety in high achievers.

Society

Social factors such as mathematical myths may also induce or reinforce

maths anxiety for some students. For example, the myth that boys are better

than girls in maths and that only some people have a ‘maths mind’ can

undermine positive self-efficacy beliefs. Too often, situations are encountered in

which it is ‘cool’ to hate mathematics, with people readily stating, with some

pride, ‘I’m no good at maths’, as though displaying a badge of honour or

promoting membership to the I Hate Maths ‘Facebook’ group. As a subject

mathematics is unique as embarrassment often does not result from failure. A

study involving over 1000 undergraduate students in the United States affirms

the view that failure at mathematics is socially acceptable – the participants

were less embarrassed in relation to lack of mathematical skills compared with

language skills (Latterell, 2005).

The classroom

Despite young children starting school having, for the most part, a well-

developed, informal competence in mathematics, it is apparent that the

classroom is also a place where maths anxiety can develop and flourish.

Research studies (e.g., Vinson, 2001) suggest that, in combination with the

parental and societal factors, maths anxiety may have its roots in teaching and

teachers, with maths anxious teachers resulting in maths anxious students at

times. Teaching by maths anxious teachers is characterised by an over-reliance

on traditional instructional activities such as: drills, flash cards, and work sheets;

assigning the same work for everyone; teaching to the textbook; insisting on

only one correct way to complete a problem; concentrating more on basic skills

rather than concepts; and, whole class instruction (Gurganus, 2007). Despite

New Zealand’s systemic attempts to reform primary mathematics programmes

(Higgins & Parson, 2009), we have ‘a long tail of underachievement in

mathematics’ (Neill, Fisher, & Dingle, 2010, p. 1) and traditional ways of

learning mathematics continue to be present within our schools (Young-

Loveridge, Taylor, Sharma, & Hāwera, 2006).

While traditional instruction may contribute to maths anxiety, so too does

the culture of the classroom. Classroom culture can be defined as the

behaviours and norms that guide classroom interactions. Experiences of

learning mathematics in structured, rigid classrooms include little opportunity for

debate or discussion, focus on searching for the one right answer, offer limited

encouragement to reflect on thinking, expect quick answers, and emphasise

timed tests (Shields, 2005). In such classrooms, it is likely both overt and covert

teacher behaviours are implicated in fostering students’ maths anxiety (Breen,

2003). These behaviours include: unrealistic expectations of students; gender

bias; giving poor explanations; hostility, anger or intimidation; embarrassing

students in front of peers if a concept is not understood; and, an insensitive or

uncaring attitude (Shields, 2005).

With the advent of National Standards, New Zealand teachers are

encouraged to integrate a range of assessment practices that support students’

learning. However, we know from the research that implementing effective

assessment for learning practices is challenging. Watson’s (2000) study of

Maths Anxiety: The Fear Factor in the Mathematics Classroom 9

informal assessment practices in classrooms, found that teachers were more

prone to ask students to report mathematics already done. Limited attendance

to, and probing of children’s thinking means judgments are more likely to be

based on written work. Unfortunately, written tests, in particular, are often the

primary source for students’ anxiety (Shields, 2005). Other types of assessment

that might also contribute to maths anxiety are timed assessments or activities

within competitive environments. Students who do not perform well on these

types of assessment are often left feeling embarrassed and with the belief they

cannot do mathematics.

While the classroom and the experiences provided can contribute to

maths anxiety, so too can a ‘dropped stitch’. These stitches can be described as

a gap in a student’s prior mathematics learning that prevents more advanced

concept learning (Farrell, 2006) and can arise when students miss learning

access to particular concepts due to shifting schools, illness, or other personal

reasons (Freiberg, 2005).

MITIGATING MATHS ANXIETY

Current reforms in mathematics education that put the ‘spotlight squarely

on the social and cultural aspects of mathematical development’ (Walshaw &

Anthony, 2008, p. 516) require teachers to ensure that all students have

opportunities to develop mathematical proficiency that includes a positive

mathematical disposition. As maths anxiety is a learned condition (Nolting,

2011), one hopes it can be unlearned. Consequently, teachers have an

important role in the reduction or prevention of student maths anxiety. The

research literature points to several promising ways teachers can assist in the

unlearning, or even prevention, of maths anxiety in students. The variety of

ways available to teachers discussed here include: building positive attitudes

towards mathematics; utilising journal writing, autobiography, metaphors,

drawing, thought bubble pictures, bibliotherapy, and maths related fiction books;

promoting an appropriate classroom culture; utilising effective teaching

practices; working to reduce one’s own maths anxiety; and, involving parents in

school mathematics.

To begin, the need to attend to the affective needs of students is

discussed. Because emotions drive and intensify thinking in mathematics in

profound and powerful ways, identifying students’ emotions concerning

mathematics is as important as identifying any cognitive skill (Zambo & Zambo,

2006). There is a range of ways in which teachers might first identify student

emotions before bringing them out into the open through a classroom

discussion of maths anxiety. Journal writing, while typically utilised to create

opportunities for students to express their understandings of mathematical

concepts, can also be used for sharing and reflecting on feelings about, and

experiences with mathematics (Furner & Berman, 2003). Autobiographies

(Ellsworth & Buss, 2000) in which students are encouraged to explain their

personal mathematics background in writing, including family experiences of

mathematics, may also provide students with the opportunity to express their

feelings about mathematics.

Metaphors can also be used to identify students’ feelings and opinions

about mathematics (Wolodko, Willson, & Johnson, 2003). For example,

teachers can encourage students to imagine mathematics as an object, thing,

Julie Whyte & Glenda Anthony 10

or experience (e.g., a type of food or weather, or an out of school activity) and

to explain their choice through writing (see Gibson, 1994). Filling in thought

bubbles, as seen in cartoons and comic books, has also been successfully used

to reveal students’ feelings about participating in mathematics (Zambo &

Zambo, 2006). These pictures can be analysed by looking at the faces drawn

for physical or emotional clues as well as the symbols, signs and words drawn

in the thought bubble itself.

Appropriate children’s literature can also provide a way past the

obstructions to understanding and engagement that are erected by those who

experience maths anxiety. Stories can bring mathematics to life, explaining

mathematics concepts visually and providing models for visual interpretation of

concepts. More specifically, bibliotherapy, where people are helped to solve

problems through the use of books (Aiex, 1993), offers affective strategies to

caring teachers for dealing with maths anxiety (Furner, 2004). For example, in

the book Maths Curse (Scieszka & Smith, 1995), the main character

experiences tremendous discomfort when told by Mrs Fibonacci that you can

think of almost everything as a maths problem, though comes to realise maths

is a means for making life easier. As the character shares their anxiety about

maths, students may relate and so be prompted to talk about their own feelings

regarding mathematics (Furner & Berman, 2003).

As discussed earlier, classroom culture may, even unwittingly, promote

the development of maths anxiety. To prevent or reduce maths anxiety, first and

foremost requires a safe environment where students are secure in taking risks

and where student thinking is respected. Classroom cultures found to be

successful in reducing maths anxiety include asking questions and exploring

ideas, thinking to make sense, and taking time for reflection (Haylock, 2007).

Also, when assessment activities allow time for anxious students to use such

strategies as pausing, looking back, and reading aloud to maintain accuracy,

students may be able to successfully compensate for working memory limitation

associated with maths anxiety (Hoffman, 2010).

Overriding any pedagogical and participation practices within the

classroom is a teacher’s attitude. For those teachers that bring maths anxiety

with them into the classroom, it is imperative that their own fears and insecure

feelings are confronted and controlled (Martinez, 1987). To minimise maths

anxiety, teachers need to demonstrate and model a positive attitude, including:

portraying an optimistic disposition and a love for mathematics that shows

mathematics as a cultural tool; promoting the value of maths by the way it

contributes to society; and, getting beyond mathematical myths.

Likewise, supplanting negative attitudes outside the classroom may

mean that teachers need to deliberately involve parents in school mathematics.

Efforts to mitigate the family/societal impact on maths anxiety might include the

organisation of family maths meetings where activities present opportunities to

discover mathematical content along with information about teaching and

reporting approaches (Furner & Berman, 2003). Another way is to invite parents

to be directly involved with students in classroom learning activities, to share

how they use mathematics in their careers, or to participate as a coach or

mentor for particular students (Ellsworth & Buss, 2000). Regular mathematics

‘snippets’ in school newsletters or email communications explaining the

mathematics learning occurring in classrooms and ways to support and

Maths Anxiety: The Fear Factor in the Mathematics Classroom 11

encourage interest in their children may also prompt greater positive parental

involvement in school mathematics (ibid).

CONCLUSION

Statistical analysis of student’s questionnaire data for the PISA 2003

study (see Lee, 2009) confirm that maths anxiety is an important construct,

distinguishable from maths self-concept and maths self-efficacy. Lee’s analysis

suggested that New Zealand students fare well in maths anxiety stakes in that

our relatively high maths achievement scores, and positive maths self-concept

and self-efficacy scores, are matched by relatively low levels of maths anxiety.

Whilst Lee argues that ‘academic-motivation constructions such as maths self-

concept, maths self-efficacy, and mathematics are inevitably related to the

societal and educational environment’ (p. 363), the negative impact of maths

anxiety on both our students’ short-term learning and long-term relation with

mathematics, and for prospective teachers within the educational system,

remains significant.

Although there is no accurate measure of the number of students within

our classrooms that experience maths anxiety, Jennison and Beswick’s (2009)

recent survey of 40 Year 8 boys in Australia noted that eight students recorded

high ratings on maths anxiety measures. Conservatively estimating the level as

10 percent means that there are several students in each of our classes

experiencing extreme levels of discomfort with mathematics learning. Not many

negative experiences are needed for students to begin a pattern of mathematics

avoidance that lingers for the rest of their lives (Middleton & Jansen, 2011). In

order to redress this pattern of avoidance and the pervasive attitudes towards

mathematics that can frighten and debilitate, maths anxiety is another layer

within the diversity of our students that surely needs our attention. To that end,

this paper has reopened a discussion that has laid largely silent in New Zealand

literature in recent years, and in doing so provides some evidence-based

strategies that are worthy of further teacher investigation.

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Maths Anxiety: The Fear Factor in the Mathematics Classroom 15

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

JULIE WHYTE

Massey University College of Education

An interest in maths anxiety was piqued for Julie

Whyte while teaching at the primary level, where

some students showed a form of fear towards

mathematics. Now a Senior Tutor at Massey

University, Julie aims to develop a positive attitude

for mathematics in her students. Current research

interests include the fear and anxiety students and

teachers may experience about mathematics and

ways these may be overcome.

Contact: J.M.Whyte@massey.ac.nz

GLENDA ANTHONY

Massey University College of Education

Glenda Anthony is professor of mathematics education

at Massey University. Her primary research interests

include effective teaching practices within the

classroom and within teacher education. She is the co-

author of the New Zealand Iterative Best Evidence

Synthesis (BES) for effective mathematics teaching

and the Effective Pedagogy in Mathematics

Educational Practice Series produced by the

International Academy of Education.

Contact: G.J.Anthony@massey.ac.nz

The opinions expressed are those of the paper author(s) and not the New Zealand Journal of Teachers’ Work.

Copyright is held by individual authors but offprints in the published format only may be distributed freely by individuals

provided that the source is fully acknowledged. [ISSN-1176-6662]