What can be done to address maths anxiety?

By Dr Tom Hunt, Associate Professor in Psychology at the University of Derby

WorkshopIn his last blog Dr Tom Hunt explained the psychological and physical impact of maths anxiety. Here he gives some strategies which can help to address the symptoms. 

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to addressing maths anxiety. Researchers have developed many (relatively simple) strategies to support the reduction of maths anxiety. My own approach when providing professional development workshops for educational professionals is to provide a toolkit in which strategies can be selected, tried and combined in ways that suit the individual and situation.

Two examples spring to mind: 

1) The workshops delivered by National Numeracy for healthcare professionals. With a focus on open discussion and changing one’s mindset, these are a good example of real-world impact. There is a growing body of research attempting to understanding maths anxiety in the field of healthcare, particularly in nurses and nursing students. Working with colleagues across multiple trusts and universities, we are in the process of developing a new self-report tool for measuring anxiety experienced when performing drug dosage (and related) calculations. It is vital that this is measured appropriately so that we can address possible consequences of such anxiety, such as medication errors, stress and poor retention.

2) School-based approaches. I have given workshops directly with teachers and directly with older students. Intervention work with separate year groups has been in partnership with schools, understanding what is likely to work with certain age groups and working out ways strategies might need to be tweaked to maintain suitability for those they are aimed at. 

Here is a summary of such strategies:

Mindful, diaphragmatic breathing

Most people don’t breathe properly. Teaching relaxed, diaphragmatic breathing can be a first step in feeling physically relaxed. The next step is to learn how to be mindful of one’s breathing and to refocus on appropriate breathing as and when it is needed. 

Cognitive restructuring

This is important in addressing the maladaptive cognitions (unhelpful, false, irrational thoughts) that people sometimes experience. For instance, addressing unjustified beliefs that you are terrible at maths or you are doomed to fail. It can also be the case that people hold erroneous, widely held, beliefs about maths and these need to be challenged to enable one to approach maths more freely. For example, some people hold the belief (implicitly or explicitly) that men are better than women when it comes to maths, or that you are unlikely to do well in maths if you are a “creative person” who excels in art or sport. 

Expressive writing

Writing one’s thoughts in a journal has long been considered useful in regulating one’s emotions. We have observed a similar thing when it comes to maths anxiety. Writing down one’s worries and concerns prior to doing maths has been shown to help with both maths performance and alleviating maths anxiety. 

Cognitive reappraisal 

This refers to changing the way we think about an upcoming task. For people who are highly maths anxious they may approach maths with apprehension or even dread. But what if they are told that their anxious feelings are actually beneficial? This is what researchers have done, finding that when such people are told this, their performance improves and they actually feel less anxious in the end. It can be useful to consider non-maths events in our lives in which we have experienced anxiety, yet we have gone on to succeed. Applying the same mindset to maths can have surprising effects. 

Systematic desensitisation 

Typically used to address phobias, this has been shown to be effective in addressing maths anxiety. To use an analogy, if you are treating someone who is scared of spiders you would avoid exposing that person to a real-life spider. Instead, you might consider a picture of a spider, perhaps even just a drawing of one. Only at the point when that person feels comfortable and at ease would you expose them to something that more closely resembles a real spider. In the case of maths, if someone is maths anxious it would not be helpful to expose them to a series of complex maths problems – like the spider phobic person they may just run away. Instead, you might expose them to maths in its most basic form, perhaps even just some numbers and maybe even not expecting them to “do” maths. Following relaxation techniques, it may be possible to increase the difficulty or complexity of the maths, such that the gradual exposure of maths stimuli enables the person to finally feel comfortable with maths. Translating this to the average person at home, at work or in the classroom, it would, for instance, be wise to begin doing calculations that the person feels comfortable with, only moving on when they feel ready.

Mathematical mindset

Thinking about your own mindset when it comes to maths may enable you to behave in a way that you wouldn’t have done previously, whether that is enrolling on a maths course or applying for a job that involves more maths. Challenging your own beliefs about yourself can be difficult yet effective and may be the first step to engaging in and learning more maths. In other words, changing your thinking from “I can’t get better at maths”, to “I can get better at maths”. 

Reducing pressure and freeing up mental space

It is important to question the source of any pressure you are experiencing. Are you putting pressure on yourself unnecessarily? Are your expectations unrealistically high? What are you basing those expectations on? Try and be realistic. Yes, have a growth mindset, but also think about what is suitable for you, individually. Don’t compare yourself against others. Your target might not be to achieve a high grade on a new maths course, it might not even be to pass. Rather, it might be to get through the process of enrolling on to the course itself. Be proud of your own achievements and be incremental in the challenges you set yourself. Also bear in mind the pressure you place on your own memory. Avoid keeping numbers or calculations (or even the questions) in your head when they could be written down. 

Developing maths skills

Beyond formal education it can be challenging to know how and where to further your learning. Both online and face-to-face learning have their merits. Courses can also be less focused on the end-goal of awarding a qualification, instead choosing to focus on supporting the individual in developing their maths skills. The National Numeracy Challenge has been taken by thousands of adults in the UK. Through a diagnostic check, it provides people with a summary of their strengths and weaknesses in their maths skills and supports maths learning through a range of online resources. Analysis of the Challenge data revealed that having a growth “I can do it” mindset was the strongest predictor of improvement. A personalised approach partnered with a positive attitude appears to be a recipe for success. 

 

Dr Tom Hunt is an associate professor in psychology at the University of Derby. He has worked extensively in the field of maths anxiety and published several papers on the causes, consequences and strategies to reduce it.