Tackling maths anxiety: why a ‘one size fits all’ approach won’t cut it
Following his attendance at our Power of Maths Roundtable earlier this year and input into the Guide to Tackling Maths Anxiety, Dr Thomas Hunt, shares his reflections on how to address maths anxiety based on his work engaging with schools.
Student-focused strategies that make a difference
Having researched maths anxiety for a number of years and worked with various stakeholders, it is clear that maths anxiety is highly prevalent in the UK. It occurs across all levels of education and, whilst there are many initiatives designed to increase people’s understanding and enjoyment of maths, it is clear that more needs to be done to directly tackle anxiety towards it.
I recently led a pilot project to co-design and test the effectiveness of a range of strategies to reduce maths anxiety in pupils at Ridgeway Infant School, Derby as part of the Government’s Strategic School Improvement Fund for Mathematics.
Strategies focused on were:
Reception: verbalising thoughts about mathematics at the start of maths lessons.
Year 1: minimising perceived time pressure through adjustment of worksheets to match individual student ability, thus meaning a greater likelihood that children will complete the worksheets at the same time.
Year 2: Expressive writing concerning thoughts ande feelings about maths at the start of maths lessons.
The strategies in Reception and Year 2 were based on existing research findings that emphasise the usefulness of expressive writing, perhaps as a way to almost move one’s worrisome thoughts from head to paper. We wanted to see whether simply expressive thoughts through talking could work among younger children, i.e. with limited writing ability.
The strategy selected for Year 1 pupils was based on consistent findings that time pressure is largely unhelpful, but particularly in the context of maths anxiety. A recent study I was involved in emphasised the link between maths anxiety in young children and their focus on peers finishing maths work before they did.1
Overall, results were promising: maths anxiety dropped by a small, yet statistically significant, amount in the final school term after the strategies were implemented. This shows how relatively small changes to classroom practices can have a positive effect.
Engaging with parents and caregivers is paramount
However, maths anxiety isn’t restricted to the classroom; we know it extends to the home, particularly parents and carers. Having chatted to many teachers and attended events on the subject, it’s clear that schools are motivated to engage with parents and carers – to initiate a conversation about their attitudes and feelings towards maths. Yet, this rarely happens in practice.
When parent and carer engagement events do take place, they tend to focus on the maths curriculum and the school’s approach to teaching maths. Little is done to discuss parents’ own anxiety about maths including addressing the psychological elements involved.
To complement the classroom-based strategies at Ridgeway Infant School, we ran a parent event on the topic of maths. A teacher gave a talk on the school’s current approach to teaching maths and I followed with an interactive talk on maths anxiety. This attracted an unprecedented number of parents/caregivers and resulted in some very positive feedback. My favourite part of the event was having the chance to talk to parents on a one-to-one basis, informally discussing ways they could overcome their own challenges with helping their children learn maths at home.
Importance of development for schools and pupils
Most of my work with schools usually involves working with teachers, often in the form of professional development workshops. These enable teachers to have the time and space to think about and discuss maths anxiety, including sharing their experiences and considering some of the strategies I might propose based on evidence from research studies. Such workshops can be successful simply from the point of view of raising teachers’ awareness of what maths anxiety is, its potential causes, its consequences, and ways it can be measured.
However, it wasn’t until last academic year that I had the opportunity to work directly with pupils. I was invited to Paget High School, Burton-upon-Trent to run a workshop with some of its older pupils. This involved a group of around 40 pupils who had completed the Mathematics Anxiety Scale-UK,2 scoring the highest in their year group. The session had similar aims to the teacher workshops; developing understanding of maths anxiety and, particularly, ways it can be reduced.
My approach has always been to provide a range of potential strategies. I don’t believe a one-size-fits-all approach to tackling maths anxiety is suitable – it’s important to take note of an individual’s own maths anxiety, including their personal experiences and behaviour concerning maths learning and testing. Whilst this was not done as a formal research project, the results were quite startling.
Following the workshop, increases in the average maths grade of the group notably exceeded those in the general cohort – not bad for a one-off session! This perhaps highlights the importance of such approaches; the idea is that pupils can be given the psychological tools to consider their own feelings and behaviours, to practice strategies when needed – and to do just that – recognise when they are needed.
The work I have undertaken so far, I believe, demonstrates the usefulness of tackling maths anxiety via three groups:
Professional development workshops with teachers allowing them time and space to share and talk through experiences and ideas.
Direct work with pupils providing insight into their thinking and behaviours.
Parent / caregiver engagement events (ensuring inclusion of everyone).
It was fantastic to be part of Pearson’s Power of Maths Roundtable event as it brought together experts and practitioners from across the country and from different sectors to discuss the question of how to tackle maths anxiety.
Sometimes the simplest of messages can work wonders: “maths anxiety is real, maths anxiety is common, maths anxiety can be tackled”.