Thursday, 11 February 2016

Is 'maths anxiety' real?

Dear Reader,

How do you feel about maths?
Do you feel anxious about answering maths questions publicly?
Quick, what's 12 x 8?

It has always seemed to me in my career teaching maths so far that a perception of maths as anxiety-inducing - more so than other subjects - appears to persist.  However, I am biased.  I haven't taught other subjects nearly as much and I notice it more - among pupils, so I can address it - and among teachers, so I can address it, albeit sometimes in a different way.  I know something about how to diagnose and treat maths anxiety.  If you have a pathological fear of maps or paintbrushes give you panic attacks, I might notice it less because I can't professionally tackle it.

A thought-provoking Twitter conversation today has led me to re-examine the idea of maths anxiety.  I defined it as a combination of stereotype threat, time-pressure, and teacher modelling.  Let's look at each of those in turn:

Stereotype threat is the idea that a stereotype exists and identifying yourself within that stereotypical group places you at a disadvantage, because it suggests your competence in a certain area is defined (both by others AND BY YOU) by the group you are part of. It suggests that if I reminded you that you were female before you completed an engineering task, you are more likely to do worse on the task because there is a connection in your head - usually implicit - which says that females are less competent at engineering than males.  It doesn't seem to matter if the original assumption is wrong - as it so often is - or whether you are aware of it.  It also seems to work with very subtle signals like environmental factors and even just other people in the room. It's a fascinating idea and has plenty of research to back it up, as well as some to contradict it.  For example. this blog post has some food for thought.

Time-pressure is the thing that most interests me about maths anxiety.  I would love to see some research commissioned that examines the effect of simply saying 'take your time' to a pupil when learning maths (even if you do actually stop them after a limited period).  Anecdotally, almost anything I can do that relaxes pupils into knowing they have time to check their answers seems to improve accuracy. Why then, do we time-pressure in maths at all?  One reason is the hotly-debated times tables tests, in which time pressure is often considered necessary to show rapid recall rather than just 'working your way there' by counting up or deriving.  The fact that often these are verbal tests in front of others seems to contribute to the feeling of being stressed and scrutinised that we all may recognise as the opposite of conducive to clear thinking. I wonder of the net effect though, is simply to associate maths with public humiliation.  Which brings me to...

Teacher modelling in mathematics is often perpetuated by the 'I learnt this from my teacher, I transmit this to my pupil' paradigm.  There are three broad types: those who are afraid of maths and it shows, those who can fake it, and those who genuinely glove it.  The problem is, all three types are contributing.  For those teachers who are visibly quaking when they teach maths to pupils, who avoid it where possible and transmit this rigid fear to pupils, the consequences are obvious.  The message: 'maths is hard and frightening and not even I  - an adult - am comfortable with it, so good luck with that'.  For the second type the problem is less obvious but it usually transmits itself through a version of 'Imposter Syndrome'. Early in my career, teaching maths I really wasn't sure of, I prepared every A-Level question to death and taught plausible lessons most of the time.  When it fell apart, however, was when anything didn't quite go to plan and I had to think on my feet mathematically.  Sometimes I would freeze.  Sometimes my mind would go blank.  Sometimes I would manage to croak quietly to pupils that I would take the problem away and think about it further - and never did.  The message: 'Maths is about processes, not deep thinking.  Mistakes are terrifying and we never speak of them again.'

Finally, the aficionados, the mathemartistes, the wearers of maths-themed bow ties and scarves (ahem).

How could they possibly be making this worse?  The answer, I'm sad to say, is snobbery.  I've worked with a huge number of maths teachers and they can be brutal.  I wonder if it's a side-effect of going through the 'faking it' stage, mere insecurity, but they seem to be exceptionally prone to telling others they are stupid or going about something incorrectly, or showing their own skills off in a way that puts others down.  The message: 'you don't think like I do so you're not a real mathematician. They are born not made.'

What are your experiences of maths anxiety?


  1. I like your analysis of this issue. I've met lots of terrified teachers of numeracy in adult ed settings and not a few who were keen to use their competence to belittle others. I'm certain I've been the teacher who squelches discussion of failure too. This last tendency seems most closely connected with time pressure in my experience. I was always conscious of not making progress in class or holding up the students who needed to cover the topic. I'd love to see research into the effect on telling people to slow down. A bit like Kahneman's idea of telling people to think like a lawyer or stock trader before making decisions.

    1. Exactly - lovely connection there. Thank you!

  2. Hi Lucy, timely post here by a UK maths professor over in Stanford Uni now: Love it!

    1. Thanks for this, great food for thought.