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Durham University

Durham University News

Comment and opinion

How to build confidence in maths

(24 August 2016)

Image of school children using coloured blocks

School children using coloured blocks

Researcher and qualified primary school teacher, Stephanie Raine from the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring, talks about maths anxiety and the challenges for teachers.

How do you feel when working out your change, splitting a bill between friends, or helping with your child’s maths homework?

I’m sure many of us have seen children avoid eye contact, squirm in their seats or completely freeze when presented with a maths problem. On the other hand, maybe this is your reaction.

Although it is clear that many children and adults encounter difficulties in maths, the underlying cognitive and emotive factors are unclear. Maths anxiety is a debilitating emotional reaction to maths, often giving sufferers a feeling of tension that interferes with how they solve problems in both academic situations and ordinary life.

What does maths anxiety look like?

What came first: the chicken or the egg? Does maths anxiety cause poor maths performance, or does poor maths performance elicit maths anxiety?

Alternatively, there is another theory: both aspects influence each other in a vicious cycle further affecting future feelings towards maths.

Teachers can observe specific signs of maths anxiety, such as feelings of tension, fear and apprehension, a negative mind-set towards maths, feeling threatened, and failing to reach potential.

We have to take great steps towards addressing maths anxiety, principally because in a culture where it is considered okay to say you are ‘no good at maths’ and still taboo to say you find the same difficulties in reading and writing, it may have implications for our future society.

Consequences of maths fear

The avoidance of mathematical situations can have far-reaching consequences for the sufferer and ultimately wider society. A reduction in mathematical performance can result in avoidance of subjects for further study which require maths, such as STEM subjects.

For children, their performance in maths can get worse because paying attention to these intrusive thoughts acts like a secondary demanding task, distracting their attention.

Lower attaining children are often working significantly harder when solving problems, relying on knowing the method really well rather than conceptual understanding. In other words, they are holding everything in their heads compared to their higher attaining peers, who are able to see the interconnected beauty of maths and use this understanding to their advantage.

Teachers’ help

Strategies to help children with maths anxiety involve teachers having high expectations for all children, instilling confidence in children by displaying the notion that ‘everyone can do maths’, teaching creatively for enjoyment and exploration in maths, and focusing on the development of a positive attitude towards maths.

A project, which involves researchers from the Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring at Durham University, aims to support teachers in helping children gain competence and confidence in maths through the provision of teaching materials, continuous professional development and assessments, which are then evaluated for their effectiveness.

Making maths relevant to children using realistic contexts and representations can provide support and make them feel confident again in maths.

Although maths anxiety remains elusive to define and measure, teachers can support children by early intervention and instilling confidence in maths through creative and engaging problems. It is also important that teachers engage with evidence-based interventions and research to see ‘what works’ for their children.

Find out more about the ICCAMS project (Increasing Competence and Confidence in Algebra and Multiplicative Structures)