Maths has the power to open a world of new doors and possibilities for students, but it’s also a subject where children and adults alike can lack confidence. This lack of confidence can go on to act as a barrier to engagement and progress in the subject, not to mention shape what careers young people choose to enter, or avoid.
To help us understand the impact of the pandemic on attitudes to maths, earlier this academic year, we asked over 1,000 primary teachers for their views on this.
Two in five (40%) primary school teachers told us that their pupils have reduced maths confidence following the pandemic and over one in 10 had even seen an increase in maths anxiety among their students too.
The good news is that maths anxiety can be tackled and greater confidence and resilience in maths can be fostered in classrooms and students across the country.
Here are some steps with practical tools and approaches to help turn ‘I can’t’ attitudes in maths to ‘I can’.
1 | Understanding what maths anxiety is
While having low maths confidence may not be the same as having maths anxiety, the two can be very much intertwined. So, before schools can work to build greater mathematical resilience, teachers and staff need to have a clear understanding of what maths anxiety is and how it can affect their pupils.
So what is maths anxiety in a nutshell? Leading academic, Sue Johnston-Wilder, explains:
“Maths anxiety can be described as a negative emotional reaction to mathematics that acts as an ‘emotional handbrake’ and holds up progress in maths.”
There are many common misconceptions around maths anxiety, so it’s important that teachers understand that:
- The severity can range from a feeling of mild tension to experiencing a strong and deep-rooted fear of maths.
- It spans the attainment spectrum, from high-fliers to those who find the subject more challenging.
- It’s not always obvious – it can sometimes be invisible and often unnoticed, manifesting itself at times as poor behaviour, anger, frustration, avoidance, under-attainment and helplessness.
Raising awareness of the issue can make a difference. Why not run focused CPD with staff drawing on the likes of the Cambridge Espresso research digests on maths anxiety, or put the definition of maths anxiety on a board in the staffroom? You can also draw on our Guide to Tackling Maths Anxiety and share this among your colleagues too.
2 | Identifying maths confidence levels in your school
As no two schools are the same, it is useful for primary leaders and teachers to seek to understand confidence levels in their own context. Pupil and teacher questionnaires are a great way to gain an insight into the issue, as well as help to identify any patterns and inform prevention and treatment strategies.
Surveys could range from simply asking pupils to anonymously rate how confident they feel in maths lessons from one to ten, or to share if they have any negative feelings when asked a maths question. More detailed questions could be put to staff too.
3 | Embed tools into your lessons
Mathematical resilience focuses on encouraging mathematical engagement and persistence in a way that reduces the negative effects of maths anxiety and low confidence.
There are tools that will not only support your maths-anxious learners, but can build greater confidence and resilience among your whole class:
The Growth Zone Model
The Growth Zone Model (Lugalia et al, 2013) gives a framework for pupils to name and communicate their feelings, helping to reduce anxiety and build resilience.
- The comfort zone
- Learners work on familiar tasks independently, building their self-confidence and providing opportunities for practice and automaticity.
- The growth zone
- New learning happens here; it’s safe to make mistakes, get stuck, require support, and find activities challenging and tiring.
- The anxiety zone
- Here, what is being asked is not within the learner’s reach at that moment. The learner starts to experience threat rather than challenge, stress increases, cognition decreases, and little or no useful learning takes place.
Teachers can introduce pupils to the framework and encourage them to use their own words to describe their feelings when faced with different situations, such as feeling challenged or comfortable with activities.
Print copies of the growth zone model for your learners as a tool to use regularly. Learners can place an object on the colours of the model to indicate their emotions throughout a lesson.
This will help them to be more aware of their emotional responses and allows teachers to better understand when to challenge learners in the ‘comfort zone’ with a question, or support learners in the ‘anxiety zone’.
When pupils are in the anxiety zone, healthy learning cannot take place. The focus should instead turn to reducing the anxiety as quickly and supportively as possible.
Every learner’s experience of maths anxiety or low confidence will differ, and depending on the severity and frequency, they could have a one-to-one session with targeted support as needed or be given space to take a break.
Teaching all pupils about the ‘relaxation response’ can also be a helpful tool so that learners can regulate their emotions when they begin to feel anxious.
Developed by Dr Herbert Benson, it is seen as a quick, effective way to switch off the brain’s fight-or-flight response by engaging the parasympathetic nervous system and returning the learner to a calm state.
Learners should focus on their breathing, surrounding sounds or the repetition of a well-chosen word, for instance ‘calm’ or ‘joy’. As the learner repeats their chosen word, in time with their breathing (if possible), they’ll be able to clear their mind and return to thinking effectively.
Learners can do this consciously, as and when they are beginning to feel anxious.
4 | Highlight the creativity and relevance of maths
A key way to reduce maths anxiety and build confidence is to move away from focusing on right and wrong answers, and instead bring creative thinking and real-life applications to the fore.
Maths lessons should reflect real life, be creative and conjure a sense of exploration and curiosity. Mathematicians regularly work in groups to explore concepts and challenges, so how about encouraging more group work and teamwork in classrooms too?
This can support creative thinking and engagement with the subject as it promotes collaborative problem solving and mathematical discussion.
Maths can be tangible and fun too, so try and use resources or set tasks that require objects to touch and feel - guess how many ping pong balls can you fit in a container.
5 | Remember parents and carers
Research has found that when parents and carers are more mathematically anxious or suffer with low confidence, their children learn significantly less maths and develop greater maths anxiety. So, building greater resilience among adults is incredibly important!
One step could be to rethink your approach to maths homework. For parents/carers who lack confidence or suffer from maths anxiety themselves, maths homework can cause stress and exacerbate a negative reaction, with long-lasting consequences for families.
How about setting fun maths activities that can have a positive impact on children’s learning and perceptions of maths at home?
Activity examples could include playing ‘rock, paper, scissors’ but instead hold up a number of fingers. The first person to shout out the total number wins. Or they could hunt for shapes around the home and take pictures on their phone to check they’ve found them all.
At Pearson, we believe that everyone can succeed in maths. Working together in school and at home to celebrate the magic of numbers and reframe how we teach maths are important steps on the journey to driving out fear and building greater maths resilience and confidence.
Pearson believes in the power of maths and is passionate about building maths confidence among all learners. For more support on this topic, you can listen to the recording of our session on maths anxiety that we ran at our Maths Festival from 5-16 July 2021.
> Watch the recording
> Access a host of free resources on our Maths page