Unpacking maths anxiety in Kiwi teens

Lee Mann
Master of Education, 2017
Supervised by Prof Margaret Walshaw and Raewyn Eden
Centre for Research in Mathematics Education, Institute of Education, Massey University

What four-letter word would you use to describe your feelings towards mathematics? My guess is that most people would not choose LOVE like I do, but perhaps a word with a negative connotation such as HARD or FEAR or HATE—or maybe something a bit more colourful!

I have recently completed a Master of Education research study on New Zealand teenagers’ feelings towards mathematics, focusing specifically on the incidence of mathematics anxiety—“feelings of tension and anxiety that interfere with the manipulation of numbers and the solving of mathematical problems in a wide variety of ordinary life and academic situations” (Richardson & Suinn, 1972, p. 551).

Why did I research this?

As a secondary school maths teacher, I have seen the wide range of different attitudes that students have towards mathematics:

  • Some students are keen, interested and clever;
  • Others are apathetic, disinterested and disengaged;
  • And a large third group are fearful, stressed and anxious students who are eager to succeed but seem to find mathematics to be an insurmountable wall.

It’s this third group that concerned me most as a classroom teacher. Their experiences of anxiety around mathematics are heart-breaking to witness and frustrating to battle against. I have often wondered what factors and influences contribute to this mathematics anxiety, and what strategies could be utilised to reduce its effect, and so this issue was a natural choice for my Master of Education research.

Why is this topic important?

Many researchers have undertaken work in the field of mathematics anxiety. It is an important area to research because it can have implications for everyone in their daily lives and future careers. However, most past studies into mathematics anxiety have been completed overseas, and typically with university students or pre-service teachers rather than with school-age students. Past research has found that Year 9 is the age at which mathematics anxiety peaks; therefore, it seemed that there was a need for a study of mathematics anxiety in New Zealand adolescents.

How did I carry out this research?

My research explored the extent of mathematics anxiety in Year 9 students in a provincial region of New Zealand. I wanted to examine how students’ individual and school variables (such as gender, ethnicity, school decile, school gender type and school type) related to their levels of mathematics anxiety. In 2016 I gave a survey to nearly all (N = 434) Year 9 students in the region. Then I interviewed some of the most highly mathematically-anxious students (N = 17) to examine their experiences with mathematics anxiety.

What results did the survey find?

The instrument used in the survey comprised of two factors: Mathematics Test Anxiety and Mathematics Learning Anxiety which were then summed to give an overall score for Total Mathematics Anxiety. The findings showed that 21.4% of students, particularly girls, reported high levels of mathematics anxiety. The table below shows which demographic groups had higher and lower levels of test anxiety, learning anxiety, and total mathematics anxiety:

Occurrence rates of mathematics anxiety in the study sample by demographic categories
*MELAA = Middle East/Latin America/African

CategoryRateMathematics Test AnxietyMathematics Learning AnxietyTotal Mathematics Anxiety
GENDERHighest OccurrenceFemalesFemalesFemales
GENDERLowest OccurrenceMalesMalesMales
ETHNICITYHighest OccurrenceAsiansPacific PeoplesPacific Peoples
SCHOOL DECILEHighest OccurrenceHigh DecileLow DecileHigh Decile
SCHOOL DECILELowest OccurrenceLow DecileMedium DecileMedium Decile
GENDER & SCHOOL TYPEHighest OccurrenceFemales in single-sex schoolsFemales in single-sex schoolsFemales in single-sex schools
GENDER & SCHOOL TYPELowest OccurrenceMales in co-ed schoolsMales in single-sex schoolsMales in co-ed schools
SCHOOL TYPEHighest OccurrenceIntegratedIntegratedIntegrated
SCHOOL TYPELowest OccurrenceStateStateState

What results did the interviews find?

The four main themes that emerged from the interviews were:

1.   The importance of teacher quality:

  • Teachers should make maths fun, easy, and enjoyable (e.g., by using games, a variety of different resources, and hands-on practical activities).
  • Teachers should provide clear and comprehensive explanations whilst offering multiple strategies to solve problems.
  • Teachers should give more one-on-one support and assistance to students, especially those who experience mathematics anxiety.

“It [teacher support] made me feel way more confident that I could do it.” – Year 9 student

2.   The detrimental effect of high-frequency, high-stakes assessment:

  • Test anxiety is a major component of students’ mathematics anxiety.
  • Students acknowledge the value of mathematics for their future, meaning that they were very concerned about achieving well in assessments.
  • Students have a profound fear of failure.

 “I got a ‘Not Achieved’ [grade] and it just kind of like crushed me.” – Year 9 student

3.   The impact of social comparison:

  • Students compare themselves with others and do not want to be seen to be ‘the dumbest’.
  • Mathematics anxiety heightens when students feel they are falling behind their peers.
  • Students generally feel that ability grouping (streaming) is detrimental to their social image and self-belief.

“Once you get stuck in the bottom class, you can kind of like ‘keep’ there.” – Year 9 student

4.   The big jump when starting secondary school:

  • The emergence of mathematics anxiety typically occurred when the students started secondary school.
  • School transitions can highlight ‘math gaps’ for students and trigger mathematics anxiety.
  • Algebra is an area of intense fear and confusion for students.

“I just looked at the page and I started to cry, I just freaked out.” – Year 9 student

How can mathematics anxiety be reduced?

Sufferers of mathematics anxiety in this study have revealed that school-level factors are the main source of the problem. Therefore, schools should be the first place we look for solutions. Based on my findings, strategies to address mathematics anxiety could include:

  • Enhancing teacher quality;
  • Reviewing assessment practices and utilising alternative forms of assessment;
  • Examining ability grouping practices; and
  • Year 8 and Year 9 teachers/schools collaborating more to ensure a more seamless school transition.

Given the findings of this study, the time is right to begin addressing this debilitating situation. Let’s work together to encourage our students to think of a more positive four-letter word to describe their feelings towards mathematics!

Lee Mann is a secondary school mathematics teacher in New Zealand. After a decade of teaching, she embarked upon postgraduate study out of “professional curiosity and personal challenge” and graduated with a Master of Education, with distinction in Mathematics Education, in 2018. She has also co-authored a mathematics textbook and submitted an article for review to the New Zealand Journal of Educational Studies. Lee’s full thesis can be viewed at Massey Research Online here.