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Exploring Mathematics Anxiety by Emma G. (Year 11)

Exploring Mathematics Anxiety by Emma G. (Year 11)

Inspired by events that she attended during the Cambridge Festival, including talks on "Common Knowledge" and "Mathematics Anxiety", Emma G. researched and produced essays on both of these topics.

Mathematics anxiety (MA) is defined as “a feeling of tension and anxiety that interferes with the manipulation of numbers and the solving of mathematical problems in ordinary life and academic situations.”

This can range from a mild tension to a severe fear of maths; it can affect people in the short term (during studies in school) or long term (not pursuing careers that require a certain level of mathematics) and can have negative consequences.

An important distinction to make is that MA is separate from other anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety, social anxiety or other academic anxieties such as test anxiety. That said, MA can manifest itself in a number of ways; worries that occupy student’s thoughts during and prior to tests leading to poor performance in examinations, students with high MA may avoid elective maths classes (even if they achieve high scores in maths) thus not reaching full potential in achievement levels, and finally, students may avoid maths-related careers altogether.

Two of my points of interest on this topic are the gender difference and the idea that this anxiety and performance in mathematics are not directly related.

Women tend to have higher levels of MA than men, which can contribute to the relative lack of women in STEM and maths-heavy careers. This is still the case even in highly gender-equal countries. Higher MA in girls than in boys could stem from gender stereotypes being enforced by parents, teachers and students themselves. It also affects girls particularly, as they typically have high MA and low self-confidence.

Generally, girls are more anxious than boys since high general and test anxiety predispose them to high MA too. However, girls are also more likely and willing to admit and therefore receive treatment for their anxiety than boys, affecting the recorded statistics. Boys could be less willing to admit their anxieties than girls because of enforced stereotypes, societal ideals of masculinity, or because they mature later than girls. Again, this may be a serious factor behind the male dominance in STEM fields.

It seems obvious that the stronger the MA, the weaker the maths performance. However, this is not entirely true. 80% of students with high MA do not actually perform poorly in maths. These students are able to perform at normal, or even above average levels, yet may be deterred from maths-related career choices due to this anxiety. In contrast, about 80% of students with poor maths achievement do not have high MA. It seems like it should be the other way round!

A possible explanation for this is that high MA most likely appears in students who value maths highly and understand its importance yet have a relatively low confidence in maths. Some students lose confidence in maths when they are moved up a set or given more challenging work because they were exceeding expectations in the first place. In senior school, students feel that there is more at stake in maths, leading to irrational fears and loss in confidence.

How could schools tackle MA? It is important to firstly understand MA and its consequences, and that anxiety and performance are distinct. Teachers should work to build their students’ confidence from a young age and put every test or exercise into perspective.

Offering maths-related workshops and other extra-curricular activities could encourage students not to associate mathematics solely with work and tests, and to show that it can be an enjoyable and creative subject. By having fun with maths and proving to students that it doesn’t have to be so serious and stressful, we could reduce maths anxiety and close the wide gender gap in STEM careers.

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