Addressing maths anxiety in practice

To target any barrier to learning you must first identify where it occurs. Then you can use strategies to reduce any negative effects on learning.

Identifying mathematics anxiety in students

Create mathematics metaphors with your students (Brady & Winn, 2014). Explain to students the concept of a metaphor and then ask them to create their own mathematics metaphor by getting them to:

  • describe mathematics
  • describe the feelings they experience when doing mathematics
  • identify what things best represent how they think of mathematics.

These metaphors will illustrate the types of beliefs, patterns of thinking and emotions your students experience in relation to mathematics.

Identifying mathematics anxiety in teachers

Conduct an online anonymous staff survey to gauge levels of mathematics anxiety in your school. Make sure the items or questions forming the survey will not compromise staff anonymity. For example, if you are surveying a group of staff and there is only one member in the group who identifies as male, then do not include an item on gender.

Tips on how to create a survey for staff

Have a clear picture of what you want to investigate. Make sure your survey will collect data that will help you conduct this investigation. You might want to examine teaching confidence as well as mathematics anxiety.

Make sure the wording of your survey items is clear and concise. Measure one concept per item. For example:

  • I feel nervous when teaching maths.
  • I worry more about my teaching of maths than other subjects.
  • If I can avoid teaching maths, I do.
  • Anxiety about maths stops me from asking for help with my maths teaching.

If you want to measure change over time (eg change in levels of mathematics anxiety before and after implementing engagement activities), make sure you conduct the survey before and after staff complete the activities. Ensure that the items that you are using to monitor change are the same in the before and after versions of the surveys.

Make the rating scale consistent across items.

Reducing mathematics anxiety in younger students

Bibliotherapy is the practise of helping an individual address negative emotions through reading and discussion (Wilson, 2009). It is a strategy that can help students, particularly younger students, understand their mathematics anxiety as it encourages them through reading to empathise with a character who is experiencing similar challenges to those that occur in the mathematics classroom. This empathy supports students to identify their own ways of overcoming these challenges as they observe how the character in the book approaches the problem.

There are many texts that address mathematics anxiety topics including the following examples:

  • The Neverending Math Test: Working to Understand Our Strengths and Limitations by Tosca Killoran, Jeff Hoffart, Riva Zietsoff
  • The Monster Who Did My Math by Danny Shnitzlein
  • Math Curse by Jon Scieszka
  • Donavan's Double Trouble by Monalisa Degross
  • I'm Trying to Love Math by Bethany Barton
  • When Sophie Thinks She Can't by Molly Bang

When using these texts in class or with students individually, it is important to engage in follow up discussions and activities with students to draw out the key experiences of the characters and link these to the emotions that students may be feeling.

Additionally, reading books with students prior to or as part of the process of teaching mathematical concepts, whilst not technically bibliotherapy, can also help to reduce negative emotional responses and elicit more positive reactions towards mathematics instruction.

The Mathematical Association of Victoria provides a summary of available picture books organised by age level and many with reviews.

Reducing mathematics anxiety in older students and adults

Two techniques that help improve emotion regulation skills are deep breathing exercises and expressive writing. Both techniques will reduce the negative impact of the symptoms of mathematics anxiety on performance and learning. Deep breathing exercises can be short, are very effective and can easily form a part of a lesson. Expressive writing requires the individual to privately write down all their negative emotions in relation to mathematics without judgement.

Engagement activities

Team-based activity

Stimulus: 10 minutes

Watch the following video: Why do people get so anxious about math? - Orly Rubinsten

Activity: Approximately one hour

After watching the video, break into small groups or discuss with a colleague your history with mathematics anxiety whether that be your own experience of mathematics anxiety or anxiety you have seen experienced by students, friends or family members.

Reflect either individually or with your colleagues on how this video and the model for mathematics anxiety represented in Figure 2 resonates with your context:

  1. Where do you see evidence of mathematics anxiety? With students, staff, parents?
  2. What aspects of the video and the data it presents about mathematics anxiety did you already know and what was new?
  3. What are some ways of identifying mathematics anxiety and negative beliefs about mathematics in students and the wider school community?
  4. What could you, as a school, do to support all students, staff and parents to see the value of mathematics and numeracy and to build self-confidence across the system?

From your reflection, identify ways you can support all students, staff and parents to see the value of mathematics and numeracy and to build self-confidence across the system. Describe how these things will help to promote positive beliefs about mathematical learning and mathematics potential.

Individual activity

Stimulus: 10 – 20 minutes

Choose one of the following articles to read.

Activity: Approximately 40 minutes

Reflect on your current practice, your attitudes towards mathematics, ideas about teaching mathematics and the mathematical beliefs of your students.

For mathematics teachers
Think about your students and consider if you are aware of their feelings toward mathematics. Could some students that appear disengaged actually be avoiding mathematics because of anxiety? What kinds of beliefs do your students hold about mathematics potential? Do the students in your class value mathematics? In answering this question, remember that anxiety is always connected to some type of mathematics value and value can come in different forms – it could be enjoyment, it could be considering mathematics useful or it could be thinking that it is linked to 'being smart'.

For non-mathematics teachers
What types of beliefs do you have about mathematics? How are they reflected in the way that you talk about mathematics? How might the way you talk about mathematics influence your students' attitudes

Link your reflection to the reading on expressive writing.

For mathematics teachers
How do you typically help a student who is mathematically anxious? Have you ever tried helping a student who is mathematically anxious without discussing mathematics or by suggesting ways to reduce the symptoms of their anxiety? How could you incorporate expressive writing into a lesson plan and what type of lesson would work best?

For non-mathematics teachers
Try developing your own mathematics metaphor (see above) to highlight beliefs and patterns of thinking that you have about mathematics.

Discuss how the ideas in the reading and your reflection will impact on your future classroom practices.

For mathematics teachers
Could modifying your language around mathematics help to encourage more positive mathematical beliefs? What changes will you make to your teaching practice to prevent or reverse the development of mathematics anxiety in your students? Endorsing a growth mindset in the mathematics classroom does not mean that you believe that every student will become a high-level mathematician. It means that you believe that every student can improve with practise and effort.

For non-mathematics teachers
Could modifying your language around mathematics help to encourage more positive mathematical beliefs? How can you better demonstrate to students the importance of mathematics and numeracy in your subject area?

Research references

Research references

Ashcraft, M. H., & Kirk, E. P. (2001). The relationships among working memory, math anxiety, and performance. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 130(2), 224-237.

Brady, K., & Winn, T. (2014). Using metaphors to investigate pre-service primary teachers' attitudes towards mathematics. Double Helix, 2.

Buckley, S., Reid, K., Goos, M., Lipp, O. V., & Thomson, S. (2016). Understanding and addressing mathematics anxiety using perspectives from education, psychology and neuroscience. Australian Journal of Education, 60(2), 157-170.

Bursal, M., & Paznokas, L. (2006). Mathematics anxiety and preservice elementary teachers' confidence to teach mathematics and science. School Science and Mathematics, 106(4), 173-180.

Clements, D. H., Sarama, J., & Germeroth, C. (2016). Learning executive function and early mathematics: Directions of causal relations. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 36, 79-90.

Davis, E. L., & Levine, L. J. (2013). Emotion regulation strategies that promote learning: Reappraisal enhances children's memory for educational information. Child Development, 84(1), 361-374.

Dowker, A., Sarkar, A., & Looi, C. Y. (2016). Mathematics anxiety: What have we learned in 60 years? Frontiers in Psychology, 7, 508.

Eden, C., Heine, A., & Jacobs, A. M. (2013). Mathematics anxiety and its development in the course of formal schooling—a review. Psychology, 4(06), 27.

Frenzel, A. C., Pekrun, R., & Goetz, T. (2007). Girls and mathematics—A "hopeless" issue? A control-value approach to gender differences in emotions towards mathematics. European Journal of Psychology of Education, 22(4), 497-514.

Jamieson, J. P., Peters, B. J., Greenwood, E. J., & Altose, A. J. (2016). Reappraising stress arousal improves performance and reduces evaluation anxiety in classroom exam situations. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 7(6), 579-587.

Ma, X. (1999). A meta-analysis of the relationship between anxiety toward mathematics and achievement in mathematics. Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 30(5), 520-540.

Maloney, E. A., Schaeffer, M. W., & Beilock, S. L. (2013). Mathematics anxiety and stereotype threat: Shared mechanisms, negative consequences and promising interventions. Research in Mathematics Education, 15(2), 115-128.

Park, D., Ramirez, G., & Beilock, S. L. (2014). The role of expressive writing in math anxiety. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 20(2), 103.

Paunesku, D., Walton, G. M., Romero, C., Smith, E. N., Yeager, D. S., & Dweck, C. S. (2015). Mind-set interventions are a scalable treatment for academic underachievement. Psychological Science, 26(6), 784-793.

Ramirez, G., Shaw, S. T., & Maloney, E. A. (2018). Math anxiety: Past research, promising interventions, and a new interpretation framework. Educational Psychologist, 53(3), 145-164.

Thomson, S., De Bortoli, L., & Buckley, S. (2013). PISA 2012: How Australia measures up: the PISA 2012 assessment of students' mathematical, scientific and reading literacy. Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER): Melbourne.

Wilson, S. (2009).  'Better You Than Me': Mathematics Anxiety and Bibliotherapy in Primary Teacher Professional Learning. In R. Hunter, B. Bicknell, & T. Burgess (Eds.), Crossing divides: Proceedings of the 32nd annual conference of the Mathematics Education Research Group of Australasia (Vol. 2). Palmerston North, NZ: MERGA.

Zaslavsky, C. (1994). Fear of math: How to get over it and get on with your life. New York: Rutgers University Press.