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What is Mathematics Anxiety?

What is mathematics anxiety?                                                                                 This project has been funded by the Nuffield Foundation.

Blood pressure is rising. The heart starts to beat more rapidly. It feels as if every nerve is on edge. You probably can relate to this visceral reaction because at some point you’ve likely experienced anxiety.  Anxious feelings are a normal part of life. Luckily, for many people, they are a relatively small part. For some, though, bouts of anxiety can be so intense and occur so frequently that psychologists have come to recognise this as a clinical condition.

One type of anxiety, Mathematics Anxiety, is of particular interest for us at the MMAD Lab. Mathematics Anxiety is a negative emotional reaction to mathematics that can be debilitating. It has been defined as “a feeling of tension and anxiety that interferes with the manipulation of numbers and the solving of mathematical problems in … ordinary life and academic situations1, 2 . The severity of Mathematics Anxiety can range from a feeling of mild tension all the way to experiencing a strong fear of maths. The prevalence of extreme mathematics anxiety is estimated at between 2-6% at secondary school level in the UK3, and other cases, whilst less severe, can still have a significant effect on the people who suffer with it7.

As stated above, Mathematics Anxiety is not restricted to tests or classroom settings. It may generalise to various real world situations with the consequence that otherwise perfectly intelligent and capable persons develop a severe avoidance of situations involving any kinds of mathematics even extending to not choosing careers which include the application of mathematics4, 5. Mathematics Anxiety is also not to be confused with general anxiety related to assessment. That is, Mathematics Anxiety is anxiety related specifically to mathematics, not anxiety about taking tests. It is unique in this regard, as there are not widespread anxiety conditions for other specific content areas such as reading, writing, or history.

Does mathematics anxiety affect mathematics performance?

When trying to figure out how Mathematics Anxiety relates to mathematics performance, we are faced with a problem similar to that of the chicken and the egg ... which comes first? What we know is that people with higher levels of mathematics anxiety tend to perform more poorly on assessments of mathematics skills whilst those with better performance in mathematics tend to report lower levels of mathematics anxiety56. What we don’t know is which causes which. That is, it could be that having anxious thoughts about mathematics leads to poorer performance on a mathematics test or it could be that having difficulty with mathematics in the first place will result in more anxious thoughts about mathematics. It could even be a vicious downward spiral in which they both contribute towards each other (e.g. experiences of failure or negative evaluations in mathematics lead to an increase in mathematics anxiety, resulting in an ever-increasing mathematics anxiety/performance relationship). Some studies have reported fairly small correlations (measures of the strength of the relationship) between mathematics anxiety and performance5, 6; however, at this time the direction of the relationship between mathematics anxiety and performance (i.e. which one is the cause) is not clear.

Looking Forward

Recognition and knowledge of Mathematics Anxiety has grown considerably over the last decade; however, there is still much to discover. Our current project aims to identify early childhood triggers of mathematics anxiety and will examine children’s perceptions and experiences of mathematics anxiety as well as their coping mechanisms. We hope that the results of this study will enable us to understand how mathematics anxiety can be prevented, as well to design efficient intervention strategies for the alleviation of Mathematics Anxiety and the promotion of positive attitudes towards maths.

1.) Ashcraft (2002). MATH ANXIETY: PERSONAL, EDUCATIONAL, AND COGNITIVE CONSEQUENCES. Current Directions in Psychological Science 181-185.

2.) Richardson & Suinn (1972). THE MATHEMATICS ANXIETY RATING SCALE: PSYCHOMETRIC DATA.

3.) Chinn (2008). MATHEMATICS ANXIETY IN SECONDARY STUDENTS IN ENGLAND.

4.) Chipman, Brush, & Wilson (1985). WOMEN IN MATHEMATICS: BALANCING THE EQUATIONPsychology Press.

5.) Ma (1999). A META-ANALYSIS OF THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN ANXIETY TOWARD MATHEMATICS AND ACHIEVEMENT IN MATHEMATICSJournal for Research in Mathematics Education, 30(5). 520-40.

6.) Hembree (1990). THE NATURE, EFFECTS, AND RELIEF OF MATHEMATICS ANXIETY.Journal for Research in Mathematics Education, 21(1), 33-46. 

7.) Ashcraft & Moore (2009). MATHEMATICS ANXIETY AND THE AFFECTIVE DROP IN PERFORMANCEJournal of Psychoeducational Assessment, 27(30), 197-205.