Mathematics and anxiety

The question a lot of parents and teachers struggle with is why learners seem to understand mathematical problems during class, extra lessons and during homework, but when writing a test, they struggle. During my years presenting maths extra lessons, it came to my attention that a lot of learners don’t always perform according to their abilities during tests and exams. Learners complained about sleeplessness the night before the test, sweaty hands as well as the inability to recall the work. The development of this anxiety interested me and I decided to do some research.

In an advance technology-orientated society, mathematical knowledge is critical to a variety of existing and up-and-coming career paths. Mathematical knowledge is not only important in technological and scientific studies, but also humanities, social and economic studies. While more learners are needed to take maths as a subject, there is a decrease in learners taking the subject and those who take the subject often perform poorly. Furthermore mathematics reflects the lowest past rate for Grade 12 learners.

Minimum requirements in mathematics

Course

University of Stellenbosch

University of Pretoria

University of the Freestate

BCom

5-6

5-6

4

BAcc

6

X

5

Political, philosophical and economical studies

5

5

x

Human resource management

4

4

4

Sport science

3

5

x

Medicine

4

5

5

Occupational therapy

3

4

5

Physiotherapy

4

4

5

Dietetics

4

4

4

Consumer science

x

4

5

BSc Agric

4

5

5

Engineering

6

6

x

x- Course not available/ Maths not a requirement

Variables that influence the avoidance of maths and poor performance in maths include cognitive and personal factors. Cognitive factors include academic background, intellectual ability and learning styles. Personal factors include self-efficacy, attitude and motivation. A personal factor that is increasingly used to explain the avoidance of maths and poor performance in maths is math-anxiety. Learners with math-anxiety often have negative attitudes towards math, often perform poorly in the subject and therefore avoid the subject.

Anxiety is one of the emotional problems mostly associated with mathematics. Sigmund Freud described anxiety as the ego’s reaction to danger. It is the uncomfortable feeling that motivates the ego to avoid danger and therefore decrease anxiety. Anxiety can trigger fear that can build up to a negative physical or behavioural reaction. Math anxiety can be seen as the above mentioned reaction to mathematics.

There are two types of anxiety, namely state anxiety and trait anxiety. Individuals with trait anxiety have a tendency to feel anxious in different types of situations, while individuals with state anxiety only experience anxiety in specific personal stressful situations. Both types of anxiety affect performance. Furthermore, there are more specificicaly catogarised types of anxieties, for example test anxiety and math anxiety.

Math anxiety has been conceptualised in different ways. The most common definition of math anxiety by Richardson and Suinn defines math anxiety as the feeling of tension that hinders the use of numbers and the solving of mathematical problems in the person’s everyday life as well as academic environment. Other definitions focus on the emotional reactions to mathematics. These emotions include fear, discomfort, panic and tension. The anxiety often originates from a lack of self-confidence to do mathematics and leads to frustration and helplessness. While it is good to understand exactly what math anxiety is, it is also important to know how it develops and how it can be avoided.

Children already start forming the base for future mathematical concepts during the first few months of their life. Strong existing knowledge is important for further development of math skills. Before a child can count or do addition they have to construct ideas around maths, that can’t be learnt directly. A lot of these basic ideas are formed by interacting with their environment and the adults in their environment. Ideas that will support formal maths later on are already formed during the first five years. The simplest concept, namely that numbers have quantity associated with it, is a complex relationship that the child must understand. When children go to school this process can often take a negative course, especially for girls.

At this stage, books take over and the focus shifts from the constructing of ideas through the learner’s own mathematical thinking, to the teacher’s methods. Teachers start to focus on repetition and speed to improve math skills. This interferes with the child’s natural thinking processes and leads to negative attitudes towards maths. The focus on repetition and speed also increases anxiety levels. It was also found that learners develop math anxiety as a result of poor performance and not the other way around. Learners perform poorly because of other factors and as they fall behind, anxiety increases.

As described above, math anxiety is a complicated concept and there are many factors that can influence math anxiety. It will be impossible to discuss all the factors, therefore the focus will be on gender, self-efficacy, and value attached to the subject and environmental.

Although girls have the same aptitude for mathematics as boys, they are more prone to math-anxiety. This may be due to the fact that girls experience more trait anxiety than boys. This may in part explain why boys generally perform better in mathematics than girls. Girls and boys’ brains work differently and therefore their approach to learning is different.

Self-efficacy is found to play an important role regarding math anxiety. Self-efficacy is the person’s belief regarding his/her ability to be successful with a certain task or behaviour. It is an important determinantorto wether a person will attempt a task or not. This expectation is also an indication of how much determination, regardless of struggles, will be applied. Learners with high self-efficacy are more likely to generate alternative methods if not successful at first, and cope well with problem situations.

When learners see the importance and value of what they are learning, they are more inclined to be involved with the subject and therefore perform better. An individual that believes that mathematics is a set of rules that needs to be memorised, will face the inability to cope effectively with certain conceptual problems. This is because the person only relies on memorising. This can lead to the development of negative attitudes towards mathematics and cause math-anxiety, trigger existing anxiety or increase anxiety.

A learner’s learning environment is the social and physical environment wherein a learner finds him-/herself. That includes their home, school and classroom. One of the main factor’s of the child’s home environment includes parental involvement. This refers to the parent’s interest and support of mathematics. When a parent is anxious about mathematics or has a negative attitude towards mathematics, this can be transferred to the child.

In conclusion, math-anxiety is a complex concept that is hard to understand. It often develops as the child goes to school and the teachers methods interfere with the child’s natural thinking processes. As the child performs poorly or falls behind, anxiety develops. Anxiety results in the learner performing even worse and avoiding the subject all together. Parents can support their children by modelling a positive attitude towards math and the value of the subject. While parents can’t always support their children with their homework, they can support them by arranging math support or remedial maths lessons.

Bibliography

Meyer, W.F., Moore, C., & Viljoen, H.G. (2008). Personology: From individual to ecosystem. (4th Ed.). Johannesburg, South Africa: Heinemann.

Miller, H., & Bichsel, J. (2004). Anxiety, working memory, gender, and math performance. Personality and Individual Differences, 37(3), 591-606. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2003.09.029

Motshekda, A. (2013). Statement during the announcement of the 2014 National Senior Certificate Grade 12 Examination Results. Retrieved from http://www.education.gov.za/Newsroom/Speeches

Richardson, R., & Suinn, R. (1972). The mathematics anxiety rating scale: Psychometric data. Journal of Counselling Psychology, 19, 551-554.

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Mathematics and anxiety

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