Defined as a fear or apprehension of mathematical activities, a new paper by libertarian think tank the Centre for Independent Studies (CIS) has warned maths anxiety affects as many as a third of Australian children, hindering both their development in the discipline and future career opportunities. 

And according to author Dr David Geary, a Curators’ Distinguished Professor at the University of Missouri, successive PISA studies have indicated that it’s an intensifying problem. 

Some 61 per cent of Australian 15-year-olds say they feel anxious about failing in maths, 58 per cent often worry they will find maths classes difficult, and 66 worry they will get poor marks in the subject, 2023 PISA results found. 

Glenn Fahey, director of the education program at CIS, told EducationHQ that unfortunately schools are often using misguided strategies to combat the disorder that ultimately work to exacerbate it. 

Having students avoid certain anxiety-inducing maths tasks is one, Fahey said. 

“When we think about anxieties generally, including those as adults, one of the key reflexes we have is to just reduce our exposure to what we’re scared of … but when it comes to something like reading, writing, or maths – it seems to be maths especially where we [are] encouraging a lot of avoidance behaviour – that actually makes the situation much worse…”

“Particularly if children are showing avoidance related to arithmetic, sometimes we might substitute other kinds of activities ... because we see that as being a potential trigger.

“But by withdrawing that arithmetic, of course, in the long run we are reducing students’ confidence with dealing with [it], and ultimately, we can't completely cocoon ourselves out of those challenging elements…” 

Reducing students’ exposure to timed maths assessments was another problematic response that needed an urgent re-think, Fahey added. 

“The problem, of course, is that practice under timed conditions is actually one of the best ways that we build (mathematical) fluency. 

“When we build fluency, we’re much more comfortable and confident in dealing with all kinds of other arithmetic. 

“And so paradoxically, more exposure to timed assessment actually reduces the incidence of maths anxiety,” Fahey said. 

A patchy mastery of key foundational maths skills, especially arithmetic, fuelled by a lack of direct and explicit instruction in the early years was likely behind the upward trend in children’s fear rooted to the subject, the expert flagged. 

And we now know it’s not anxiety that causes poor achievement in maths; it’s poor achievement that drives the development of the disorder, he added. 

Cognitive load research helps to explain the detrimental impact maths anxiety has on student performance. 

It also suggests inquiry-based tasks may well heighten the experience of maths anxiety, by lumping additional cognitive load onto novice learners, Fahey indicated. 

“When it comes to fears and phobias, [there’s] an impact that’s similar to the way that cognitive load works … in a lot of particularly inquiry tasks, students are asked to process a lot of information, novel information in those conditions at the same time. 

“If we’re experiencing an anxiety response, as many children might, that also limits our attentional resources at the same time as well.” 

Fahey said maths anxiety was a “sort of contagious” condition which children were picking up from adults.  

As the paper points out, PISA data shows a one-point increase in its Index of Mathematics Anxiety is associated with an achievement slump of 18 score points (close to the equivalent of one year’s worth of learning in the subject), even after factoring in students’ socioeconomic backgrounds. 

So what does the (albeit limited) evidence say about what works in the classroom? 

Geary and Fahey suggest intensive, small group tutoring with direct instruction “appears to be one of the best available cures we’ve got”. 

“And it's not too surprising, because suffering an anxiety response … is clearly competing for the same kind of attention or resources that you would otherwise experience in maths,” Fahey said. 

“So, keeping a mindful watch on the load during instruction is likely to contribute positively to reducing episodes.” 

Geary contends that maths anxiety is by no means an innate condition.

‘‘Brain imaging studies indicate that high levels of mathematics anxiety are associated with strong reactivity of the brain network that underlies acquired or learned fears,’’ he said.

Fahey said maths anxiety was “sort of contagious” and a condition children were increasingly picking up from the adults in their lives. 

“[As with] many other children’s conditions related to anxiety, a lot of times it’s the environments – and the adults – within which children find themselves that’s largely the driver of that.” 

Last year leading maths educator David Morkunas argued the phenomenon of maths anxiety was more likely to do with ineffective instruction than a specific psychological condition unique to the subject. 

Maths anxiety is a psychological issue, not a neurological one, as is the case with dyslexia, he pointed out. 

The teacher said he’d seen swathes of kids who were anxious across a whole range of learning areas, and this was largely because they lacked the requisite skills to succeed in specific domains, like reading, for example.

“If you put yourself in the shoes of a seven- or eight-year-old, who has not experienced any kind of early success in maths, and then gets put into a class and is expected to do things they have no clue how to do and are not given the right support, I think that would definitely trigger anxiety.” 

While maths education has not featured in the top priorities for policymakers here in Australia, Fahey said Britain was making ‘impressive’ strides by putting it firmly on the national agenda. 

“I thought it was really exciting: last year, one of the whole-of-government priorities coming from the (British) Prime Minister was to improve the uptake in more advanced maths. 

“I mean, what a great thing for the Prime Minister to say … [he] was quite clear [about addressing the] societal devaluing of maths, and it’s clear that’s related to issues of anxiety and maths avoidance that impacts on course taking and all those things that we’ve known about for a while as being creeping problems,” Fahey said.