Maths is a fundamental part of everyday life. From adding up the total of what you’ve spent to dividing and measuring portion sizes for meals, every one of us has to whip out our mental (or physical!) calculators at some point throughout the day. So why is it that for some people, Maths feels so daunting?
Developing an anxiety towards Maths isn’t new and can affect over a third of adults to the point that they feel physically sick! In fact, a global survey from December 2021 revealed that students from the UK are more anxious about Mathematics than anywhere else in the world.
With more and more students failing to believe in their own abilities and avoiding Maths altogether, the reduction of young adults pursuing careers which rely on Maths will inevitably affect our economy: an economy which gains £200 billion annually from its Maths talent.
How do we tackle Maths anxiety within ourselves, our students and our children? We’ll explore the root causes and some tips and techniques to overcome this fear.
What Does Maths Anxiety Look Like?
It’s tempting to pass off Maths anxiety as general unease about exams or academic performance, but those who suffer from this condition would not otherwise be anxious about other specific content areas such as reading, writing, or History.
Spotting the signs of Maths anxiety may be crucial in tackling the fear early on. A little concern or nervousness around Maths can often be normal, but repeated and heightened anxiety is not. This is especially true as children as young as six can start to suffer from a fear of Maths and can even display physical symptoms, such as a racing heartbeat, feeling hot and flustered, or sweating when confronted with Maths problems.
According to a study from Cambridge, the severity of symptoms can range from a feeling of mild tension all the way to experiencing a strong fear of Maths, with extreme Mathematics anxiety estimated at between 2-6% at secondary school level in the UK.
What Are the Contributing Factors?
Did you know that females are more prone to Maths anxiety than males? Or that cultural bias, like opinions from parents, teachers, and peer groups and even people on social media and popular culture can play a role in someone’s perspective of Maths? According to a study from Cambridge University, it’s no surprise that people with higher levels of Mathematics anxiety tend to perform more poorly on assessments of Mathematics skills.
Much like the classic chicken-and-egg problem, it is hard to determine whether anxious thoughts about Mathematics leads to poorer performance or vice versa. What we do know is that the most pervasive contributor of Maths anxiety is a person’s perceived negative experience with Maths, which can contribute to a continuous downward spiral and feedback loop.
Dyscalculia, a learning difficulty which affects a person's ability to understand number-based information, may also play a role in some learners’ Maths anxiety. People who suffer from dyscalculia rely on following procedures which they may not understand, rote learning and simple ways of working out answers like counting on their fingers.
Techniques to Tackle the Terror
Most of us in the UK agree that additional measures need to be taken to address the issue of low number confidence, and over half of us acknowledge a greater emphasis being put on improving numeracy skills.
Here are some helpful tips and tools you can use to lessen the anxiety:
Change the way you think about Maths and let go of long-held beliefs about failure. It is helpful to remember that no one is born with a calculator embedded in their brains: Maths skills can change over time and, with practice, anyone can develop a knack for numbers.
Adding to the previous point, make the time to tackle even one or two problems every day in a relaxed environment. The BBC offers excellent Maths resources no matter your current level. Solving Maths problems in a comfortable, non-pressurised environment helps to take a little bit of the stress away and build confidence, especially if you start with basic problems and go from there.
National Numeracy, an independent charity, devised the National Numeracy Challenge, which is a free, online tool developed for people with low confidence with numbers. The aim is to build Maths confidence and help improve everyday Maths skills in manageable steps.
Find a specialist who can help you improve your Maths skills. At Titanium Tutors, we are lucky to have a large pool of Maths tutors: from undergraduates studying towards a Maths degree to qualified Maths teachers. It’s important to remember that there is no one-size-fits-all approach and a tutor can help tailor lessons to your needs. Struggling alone does not have to be your only option.
As with other goal setting skills, don’t expect miracles overnight! There will be times when Maths can still feel daunting and persistent practice is key. According to National Numeracy, work at a comfortable pace, without the pressure to master a problem straight away. Setting achievable goals, which feel reachable, can help to keep up the motivation while overcoming anxiety.
Blog Post Crafted by Cheryl
Cheryl manages our Admin Team, and is a qualified teacher with 5 years' experience in schools across England and Canada.
Cheryl graduated from University of Toronto with a Bachelor of Education. She tutored secondary school students in English for over nine years in Canada.
Cheryl speaks Cantonese, English and French, and in her spare time, she can be found illustrating and reading children’s books for inspiration.