While Australian students are performing above the OECD average in maths, the 2022 OECD Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), has found students from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to fall behind in this important subject.
Exacerbating this is the phenomenon of mathematics anxiety – a fear or apprehension of mathematical activities – which is holding back student achievement and even employment opportunities in STEM fields.
A recent study warned that maths anxiety can disrupt performance during mathematical activities, potentially through concerns about performance that, in turn, reduces attentional resources that can be used for mathematics learning or performance in tests.
What can be done?
Ben Zunica, a secondary mathematics educator and researcher in the Sydney School of Education and Social Work at the University of Sydney, teaches secondary mathematics pedagogy, drawing on his 20 years as an educator across a wide range of schools in NSW and Victoria.
Dr Zunica says that in his experience, maths anxiety usually arises as a result of past negative experiences with mathematics.
“With mathematics being seen as particularly important, these negative experiences can become more painful, leaving students feeling academically inadequate,” Dr Zunica told The Educator.
“To combat maths anxiety, teachers and leaders should focus on what students can do, to talk positively about what the student has achieved.”
Additionally, says Dr Zunica, there is a feeling among some parents that mathematics is really the only subject that matters and focus their attention on mathematics performance, putting increased pressure on their child to excel in this subject.
“Thus, I encourage school leaders to talk to their parent body about seeing education holistically and focusing their attention more on successes rather than perceived inadequacies.”
Show students that can be fun, practical and useful
While doing his PhD, Dr Zunica came across expectancy-value theory, which he said helped to unlock engagement in his classes.
“It says that if students value maths and have some expectancy for success then they will be more engaged and, in my experience, this is completely true,” he said.
“To help students value mathematics, they need to see it as fun, practical and useful. Thus, in our teaching, we need to show students that mathematics is practical by developing activities that are related to real life.”
Dr Zunica says teachers and parents also need to show that doing mathematics can be fun, which is best demonstrated by showing that they find mathematics enjoyable.
“Once students are engaged and want to do mathematics, outcomes tend to take care of themselves as students who practice are more likely to achieve those all-important outcomes.”