Is Maths Anxiety Impacting Your Teaching?

Maths is often thought of as a scary subject; that reputation may be having real impacts on educators and students, says new research.

Some primary teachers have been found to have “maths anxiety”, which could affect their ability to teach.

The new research comes from EIT | Te Pūkenga Teacher Educator and Massey University doctoral candidate Julie Whyte, who says she was first drawn to the topic of maths anxiety after noticing students’ adverse reactions to the subject while working as a primary teacher in the Manawatū. 

Whyte noted that: “Society as a whole has this thing about maths… People say things like: ‘oh no, I’m useless at maths’.” 

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Whyte’s thesis focused on the experiences and behaviours of 12 primary school teachers, who self-identified as having “maths anxiety”, a term that refers to “a negative response specific to anticipation of, or involvement with, activity relating to mathematics teaching, or to the beliefs held in relation to perceived competence with teaching mathematics.” Whyte conducted in-person and Skype interviews with the participants to get a better understanding of the causes and impacts of maths anxiety.  

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Her research found that much of the maths anxiety experienced by teachers stemmed from their experiences of maths as students. Three participants also cited their parents as contributing to their maths anxiety.  

Interviewed teachers said they experienced maths anxiety before they began teaching, with one participant reporting they delayed their teaching qualification because of this anxiety.  

Those who experienced maths anxiety had self-management strategies such as limiting their teaching to junior levels. Others said they overcorrected for their adversity to the subject by spending extensive amounts of time preparing for maths lessons.  

Not only did teaching maths trigger anxiety, but also the anticipation of teaching math. Interviewees spoke about their brains “shutting down” when faced with math problems. Whyte noted that one participant wasn’t able to solve a simple math problem.  

Teachers with maths anxiety were also found to avoid the subject where possible, such as scheduling new additions to the teaching timetable so they would displace maths curricula. They would also employ strategies such as scheduling less time for maths content, or tailoring maths content toward areas they felt more comfortable with. Others would distance themselves from teaching maths by relying on external resources. 

Although Whyte hypothesised professional development around math would be useful for educators suffering from maths anxiety, she found that in many cases the concept of maths PLD increased maths anxiety in participants.  

“They were worried that their colleagues would find out that they were “dumb” at maths. Maths anxiety became their focus, so they often missed the opportunity to develop an understanding for and of maths.”  


Naomii Seah

Naomii Seah is a writer and journalist from Tāmaki Makaurau Auckland, Aotearoa New Zealand. She enjoys crochet, painting, and a coffee or two at the beach. Her work can be found at The Spinoff, The Pantograph Punch, Stuff, and of course, School News NZ.
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