Saturday, 5 November 2011

Mathematics anxiety and teaching approaches

I've been doing my stuff on 'mathematics anxiety' for various groups of teachers recently. The conclusion of my analysis of the problem and why it is important is a list of recommendations for approaches to teaching, designed to address the problem. Here it is.

What can teachers do about the problem of mathematics anxiety?

Emphasise meaningful-learning, rather than rote learning.

All research evidence suggests that a rote-learning mind set generates more anxiety, because of the fear of not being able to recall correctly what seems to be an arbitrary process when it is required. Adopt a teaching style that encourages a meaningful-learning mind set rather than a rote-learning mind set.

Be sensitive to individual children who seem unhelpfully anxious

The evidence is that intervention can make a difference; set targets for reducing anxiety through encouragement, reassurance, sympathetically avoiding putting them under unnecessary pressure; eg do not expect excessively anxious to answer questions or demonstrate mathematical procedures in public.

Do not limit mathematical experiences to tasks that are right or wrong.

Give pupils a range of activities, including those that have many possible responses.

Mistakes are welcome!

Develop a classroom ethos in which mistakes and misunderstandings are welcome, in which children know that the teacher welcomes their questions and wants to know if they do not understand. It is possible for a primary school teacher to generate a classroom ethos in which errors and misunderstandings made by individual pupils are welcomed as an opportunity for the whole class to improve their understanding. In such a classroom a pupil making an error that reveals a mathematical difficulty or possible misunderstanding is seen as a helpful occurrence for the whole class. The teacher may even thank the pupil for making the error, because of the opportunity it provides for all the pupils to learn from it and to be aware of a potential pitfall. In such an approach the teacher does not seek at all costs to teach in a way that minimizes pupil error, but will allow errors to occur, sometimes quite deliberately. Clearly, such an approach requires sensitivity on the part of the teacher and awareness that there are some pupils who find it very difficult to be seen to make mistakes. But this approach has been endorsed by Ofsted, the government’s inspection agency in England, who found that effective teachers ‘cultivate an ethos where pupils do not mind making mistakes because errors are seen as part of the learning’ (Ofsted, 2003, paragraph 35).

Challenge and success

In planning tasks for children, ensure an appropriate balance between challenge and success. children respond to challenge, but too little success and the repeated experience of failure is likely to foster low self-esteem and anxiety.

Reward not just correct answers

Make sure that the provision of correct answers is not the only thing for which children get rewarded in mathematics lessons. Give marks, encouragement, praise and so on, for having good ideas, for thinking creatively, for having a go, for taking risks, and for process.

Thinking time

Recognize that some children need more thinking time than others, so do not put too much emphasis on doing mathematics quickly or expecting children to provide answers to questions instantly.

Make mathematics enjoyable for children

Then they will be less likely to be inhibited and will want to participate.

Communicate positive attitudes to mathematics

Teach the subject with enthusiasm, a sense of humour and fun, showing children that you enjoy it and value it.

Exploit social aspects of doing mathematics.

Provided these are non-threatening and anxious children feel secure enough to participate.


When giving children any kind of assessment task, emphasize that the main purpose is to help you find out how well you have been teaching them and to teach them better in the future.

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