Maths anxiety is a global concern

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The negative link between maths anxiety and maths achievement is well documented across high-income countries, and new research points to a similar relationship in low-income contexts. This global concern needs to be tackled with early interventions for students, and teacher support. Such actions should reduce maths anxiety and improve maths performance.

How often do you hear maths described as “amazing”? Given the prevalence of maths anxiety, perhaps very rarely. But that’s the word Lindsey Richland used when I asked her about a new research paper she co-authored on maths anxiety in a low-income country. “Mathematics is an amazing system for explaining the world, allowing for creative thinking, problem solving, and making arguments.” Unfortunately, as Richland went on to tell me, many of us see maths as a series of abstract rules to learn, with the ever-present possibility of getting an answer wrong.

“Mathematics is an amazing system for explaining the world, allowing for creative thinking, problem solving, and making arguments.”

While maths anxiety is a concern in its own right, the link between maths anxiety and academic maths achievement is particularly worrying. Those who have higher maths anxiety tend to perform more poorly in maths. It is likely that poor performance increases anxiety, while anxiety impairs performance – Richland described this as a “self-perpetuating cycle”. Previous research into this relationship has typically been carried out in countries that are “WEIRD”, which stands for Western, educated, industrialised, rich, and democratic. But Richland and her colleagues replicated this finding in 6- to 15-year-olds in a new context, the highly diverse and low resourced country Belize.

I asked Emma Naslund-Hadley, one of Richland’s co-authors, to tell me about their findings. “The main conclusion of our study is that these negative relationships are present also in a low-income country context. We also identify a small but significant direct relationship between teachers’ math anxiety and their students’ math anxiety.”

This second finding, Naslund-Hadley told me, suggests that in this low-income region with low maths achievement, there may be transmission of anxiety from teachers to students. “This could make the challenge of improving achievement more difficult if not addressed.”

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