Across Australia, mathematics anxiety – a fear or apprehension of mathematical activities – is holding back student achievement in this critical subject and even employment opportunities in STEM fields, new research shows.
A paper by the Centre for Independent Studies titled: ‘Facing Up to Maths Anxiety: How It Affects Achievement And What Can Be Done About It’, warns 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.
“Brain imaging studies indicate that high levels of mathematics anxiety are associated with strong reactivity of the brain network that underlies acquired or learned fears,” the paper’s author, Dr David Geary said, adding that student reports of mathematics anxiety should be considered realistic appraisals of their apprehension of mathematics.
“In other words, the engagement of brain regions associated with fear and anxiety reactions and ruminations about them indicate that mathematics anxiety is a real phenomenon rooted in biological systems that evolved to reduce exposure to potential threats.”
Dr Geary said the presence of maths anxiety among Australian students has prompted educators and policymakers to make adjustments in how maths is taught in efforts to accommodate or alleviate maths anxiety.
“In some instances, this has resulted in calls to reduce the type and format of testing [such as relaxing the timed conditions of maths tests], reducing the emphasis on procedural understanding, and relaxing the apparent inflexibility of requiring ‘correct’ results to maths problems.”
However, there are interventions that can limit maths anxiety, although there is no current consensus on what is the most appropriate, Geary pointed out.
“One-on-one tutoring with adults or peers that improves mathematics competencies, though. is a promising approach,” he said. “These educational approaches are likely to work best if they are organised and structured in a step-by-step manner.”