Divide and conquer: a new formula to minimize 'mathemaphobia'

October 26, 2020

Maths - it's the subject some kids love to hate, yet despite its lack of popularity, mathematics is critical for a STEM-capable workforce and vital for Australia's current and future productivity.

In a new study by the University of South Australia in collaboration with the Australian Council for Educational Research, researchers have been exploring the impact of anxiety on learning maths, finding that boosting student confidence, is pivotal to greater engagement with the subject.

Maths anxiety, or 'mathemaphobia', is the sense of fear, worry and nervousness that students may experience when participating in mathematical tasks.

In Australia a quarter to a third of Australian secondary students report feeling tense, nervous or helpless when doing maths, and it's this reaction that's influencing their decisions to study maths.

Lead researcher, Dr Florence Gabriel says maths anxiety is one of the biggest barriers to students choosing to study it, especially at senior school and tertiary levels.

"Many of us would have felt some sort of maths anxiety in the past - a sense of panic or worry, feelings of failure, or even a faster heart rate - all of which are associated with stress," Dr Gabriel says.

"Maths anxiety is essentially an emotional reaction, but it's just like stress in other situations.

"When students experience maths anxiety, they'll tend to hurry through maths questions, lose focus, or simply give up when it all seems too hard. Not surprisingly, these reactions compound and lead to poor maths achievement - and later a reluctance to engage with the subject at all.

"To break this cycle, our research shows that we need to build and grow student confidence in maths, especially before starting a new maths concept.

"This draws on the notion of self-regulated learning ¬- where students have the ability to understand, track and control their own learning.

"By drawing a student's attention to instances where they've previously overcome a difficult maths challenge, or to a significant maths success, we're essentially building their confidence and belief in their own abilities, and it's this that will start to counteract negative emotions."

The study assessed the responses of 4295 Australian 15-year-old students that participated in the 2012 cycle of the OECD's Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).

It focussed on the psychological factors of maths learning: motivation (the belief that maths is important and useful for their future); maths self-concept (the belief in their ability to do maths); maths anxiety (self-feelings when doing maths); perseverance (their willingness to continue to work on difficult problems); maths self-efficacy (their self-belief that they can successfully solve maths problems); and maths literacy (the ability to apply maths to the real world).

"Importantly, our research shows the domino effect that these variables have on one another," Dr Gabriel says.

"Through structural equation modelling, our data shows that low motivation and self-concept will lead to maths anxiety, which in turn affects perseverance, self-efficacy and, ultimately, maths achievement.

"By developing a student's ability to reflect on past successes - before maths anxiety sets in - we can break through some of the negative and emotional beliefs about maths and, hopefully, pave the way for students to accept and engage with maths in the future."
Notes to Editors:

* Gabriel, F., Buckley, S. & Barthakur, A. (2020). The impact of mathematics anxiety on self-regulated learning and mathematical literacy. Australian Journal of Education. Available online: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0004944120947881

* Dr Florence Gabriel will be a guest speaker in the Australian Council for Education Research's free online panel discussion on 4 November 2020. For more information visit: https://bit.ly/34kxmSA

Media contact: Annabel Mansfield T: +61 8 8302 0351 M: +61 417 717 504
E: Annabel.Mansfield@unisa.edu.au
Researcher: Dr Florence Gabriel T: +61 8 8302 9313 E: Florence.Gabriel@unisa.edu.au

University of South Australia

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