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Math Anxiety

It is clear that there is a negative relationship between anxiety and mathematical achievement and performance (Ho et al. 2000). There are many possible sources of math anxiety, but classroom culture is an important contributing factor. Traditional approaches emphasizing rote-memorized rules and drill and practice can create anxiety. For example:

  • Feelings of disorientation due to a lack of connection to prior knowledge: Focusing on rigid, formal definitions for mathematical concepts reinforces a disconnection between mathematical knowledge and the learner's knowledge. Focus should instead be on related conceptual understandings that bridge the student's prior understandings to new mathematical understandings (Newstead 1998; Wilensky 1997).
  • Fear of providing an incorrect answer: Focusing on results and invalidating the students' personal insights discourages students from expressing their partial or incomplete understandings. This focus promotes a sense that the majority is clear about the mathematical concept, deterring students from admitting confusion (Wilensky 1997).

Once formed, negative attitudes and anxiety are difficult to change. Willis (2007) describes the ways in which the brain senses threat, becomes overactive and blocks access to higher cognitive centres when a person encounters anxiety or high stress situations. Consequences include avoidance of mathematics and interference with conceptual thinking and memory processes (Newstead 1998; Wilensky 1997).

Anxiety can be alleviated with alternative teaching approaches, such as methods of teaching in which students use and discuss their own strategies, solve non-routine problems, and discuss strategies in small groups. In supportive classrooms, students feel at ease to ask questions and to take risks without fear of criticism. Emphasis on connections to the learners' knowledge makes the transition to new knowledge more meaningful and safer (Newstead 1998; Wilensky 1997).