Millions of people are affected by high levels of maths anxiety, defined as a negative emotional reaction towards mathematics. This emotional reaction can occur when being involved with maths in any way including taking a maths test, sitting through a maths class, or using math in everyday life.
Previously, most research on maths anxiety had focused on adults and adolescents. These studies showed that females show higher levels of maths anxiety3, that there is an inverse relationship between maths anxiety and maths performance4 (i.e. as maths anxiety increases, maths performance tends to somewhat decrease), and that there exist links between maths anxiety and other anxiety types such as general anxiety. Since research on maths anxiety in younger populations were either sparse or inconsistent, our study utilised children as well as adolescents. Our aim was to answer three primary questions: 1) Are there gender differences in maths anxiety in primary and secondary school children? 2) Does the relationship between maths anxiety and maths performance differ by education level? 3) Is maths anxiety specific to mathematics or is it a manifestation of general anxiety?
What We Did
In order to learn more about maths anxiety, we gave arithmetic and reading comprehension tests to 981 primary and secondary school students while also administering questionnaires designed to measure both general anxiety and maths anxiety.
What We Found
With regard to the research questions above, our study found the following:
1.) Girls report higher levels of maths anxiety than boys.
Previous studies had shown this to be the case with adults and secondary students. Now the findings from this study confirm that primary and secondary school girls show higher levels of maths anxiety than the primary and secondary school boys.
2.) Maths anxiety was linked to poor math performance in secondary school but not in primary school.
Maths anxiety was associated with poor mathematics performance in secondary students as shown previously in studies of maths anxiety in adults. With primary school children, however, this was only shown for girls and the effect became non-significant when general anxiety was controlled for.
3.) Maths anxiety is specific to mathematics.
Maths anxiety on its own was not related to reading performance, suggesting that maths anxiety is specific to mathematics.
Understanding the characteristics of mathematics anxiety can help us in our search for effective interventions. The three findings above show that maths anxiety in children shows many similarities as well as some differences with maths anxiety in adults.
Links to Articles
1.) Hill, F., Mammarella, I. C., Devine, A., Caviola, S., Passolunghi, M. C., & Szűcs, D. (2015). Maths anxiety in primary and secondary school students: Gender differences, developmental changes and anxiety specificity, Learning and Individual Differences, 1.
Other Recommended Reading
2.) Furnur, J. M. & Berman, B. T. (2003). Review of research: Overcoming a major obstacle to the improvement of student math performance. Childhood Education, 79(3), Hill, 170-4.
3.) Devine, A., Fawcett, K., Szűcs, D., & Dowker, A. (2012). Gender differences in mathematics anxiety and the relation to mathematics performance while controlling for test anxiety. Behavioral and Brain Functions, 8(33), 1-9.
4.) Carey, E., Hill, F., Devine, A., & Szűcs, D. (2015). The chicken or the egg? The direction of the relationship between mathematics anxiety and mathematics performance. frontiers in Psychology, 6, 1-6.