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Math anxiety in students: Fear makes learning difficult

August 18th, 2021

Math anxiety: Why teachers should address it

 

Karen Aldrup

Mathematics anxiety is not an uncommon phenomenon among students. Adolescents who are afraid of mathematics also frequently exhibit low performance in this school subject. Conversely, poor performance in turn reinforces math anxiety. What can teachers do to overcome this downward spiral?

Math anxiety manifests itself in situations involving numbers and mathematical calculations. In children and adolescents, it mostly occurs in math classes at school. The problem is ubiquitous and not limited to Germany. International comparative studies such as PISA show that around 30% of 15-year-old students feel helpless, nervous and tense when working on math tasks. Around 60% of adolescents fear performing poorly in mathematics.

Math anxiety is accompanied by unpleasant emotional and physical reactions such as agitation, feeling uncomfortable, tension, and worry. These reactions can make the affected students feel uncomfortable in school. Numerous studies describe a relationship between math anxiety and low math achievement. Whether mathematics anxiety is a consequence of or the cause of poor performance in mathematics has been unclear and hence the subject of the study described here. The study also addresses the question of whether teacher behavior in the classroom can reduce mathematics anxiety and its negative consequences.

In this study, 1559 students were surveyed with regard to mathematics instruction. In 5th grade, they provided information for the first time about their worry (e.g., "Worried before math test that everything practiced will be forgotten") and emotionality (e.g., " Nervous when asking questions in math class"). Students also reported the extent to which they perceive their math teacher to be attentive and supportive, i.e., sensitive to their feelings and difficulties in understanding (e.g., "My math teacher realizes when there’s something I don't understand" / "My math teacher doesn't notice when I’m afraid”). The students took standardized mathematics tests to assess their mathematics performance, while their report card grades in mathematics were also included. The surveys and tests were conducted again in the 6th and 7th grades to provide information on the interplay between mathematics anxiety and performance over the course of three school years.

Mathematics performance, worry, and emotionality reciprocally influence each other

Students who worried frequently and exhibited increased emotionality achieved lower learning gains in the following school year. This was evident in both achievement tests and math grades. Conversely, those students who demonstrated lower achievement showed higher math anxiety at the next measurement time point. This finding is especially true for the worry aspect. The correlation was less pronounced for the aspect of emotionality.

Theoretical models of the consequences of math anxiety suggest that students who worry a lot perform worse because negative thoughts impair the work memory capacity. As a result of poor performance and frequent failures, students further lose confidence that they can improve their situation. The resulting loss of control, in turn, reinforces math anxiety. One approach to overcoming this negative spiral could consist of assistance, e.g., in the form of intervention programs that address the students' negative thought processes. But do possibilities exist beyond these formal offers for teachers to have an impact on the reduction of mathematics anxiety?

Teachers' sensitivity is called for

In the 6th and 7th grades studied, math anxiety on the part of students decreased when they felt that their math teacher was attentive and supportive to their feelings and difficulties in understanding. Parents confirmed this observation: When adolescents perceived their math teacher as sensitive to their feelings and difficulties in understanding, parents also reported experiencing their child as less worried and nervous about math.

What about students who are particularly anxious and low achievers in math? Do they benefit more from a sensitive teacher, so to reduce the discrepancy to their classmates? The analyses cannot confirm this. Low-performing students do not benefit more from their teacher's sensitivity than their higher-performing classmates. Put another way, a teacher's sensitivity is equally effective for all students.

One can only speculate why these findings do not hold true for children in the 5th grade. Other factors may play a role directly after the transition to secondary school, such as the newly formed class community or the changed performance requirements.

The findings presented entail certain limitations. The relationships between anxiety and achievement in students, on the one hand, and teacher sensitivity, on the other, may depend on grade level or school system. For example, teacher sensitivity might hold particular importance in school systems with high achievement pressure. In addition, given the design of the study, we cannot rule out the possibility that a reduction in students' mathematics anxiety led them to perceive their teachers' sensitivity more positively. Finally, one should note that the described effect of sensitivity among teachers was small, so that students with pronounced mathematics anxiety need further assistance, e.g., in the form of individual learning therapies.

Conclusion

Mathematics anxiety plays a crucial role in students' educational careers. Worry and negative feelings and reactions about mathematics reduce their performance in the subject. Poor performance, in turn, leads to a further increase in math anxiety. Teachers can help interrupt this downward spiral by being attentive and supportive to students' difficulties in understanding and to negative feelings.

 

Aldrup, K., Klusmann, U., & Lüdtke, O. (2020). Reciprocal associations between students’ mathematics anxiety and achievement: Can teacher sensitivity make a difference? Journal of Educational Psychology, 112(4), 735-750. https://doi.org/10.1037/edu0000398

This publication is based on data collected as part of the DFG project "Educational Processes, Competence Development, and Selection Decisions in Preschool and School Age" (BiKS-8-14; Artelt, Blossfeld, Faust, Roßbach & Weinert, 2013). The data set was provided by the Research Data Center (FDZ) at the Institute for Quality Development in Education (IQB).

Dr. Karen Aldrup

is a research scientist in the Department of Educational Research and Educational Psychology at the IPN. The graduate psychologist is primarily concerned with issues related to the teacher-student relationship and teachers' social-emotional competence and its effects on teachers' professional well-being and on students' development.