X Close

IOE Blog


Expert opinion from IOE, UCL's Faculty of Education and Society


Maths anxiety: how can we overcome the ‘can’t do’ attitude?

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 1 December 2020

Celia Hoyles. 

The Covid-19 pandemic is raising public anxiety not just about the virus but about the maths being used to explain how it spreads and how it can be controlled. What is the so-called R value? What do we mean by “flattening the curve”?

And if people were not confused enough, what are we to make of a slide like this, shown by the Prime Minister last Spring, which presents us with an equation that makes no mathematical sense? How did you react to it I wonder? I remember thinking I must have heard it wrongly, provoking me to consider the ‘equation’ more carefully. For many it might have been just one more instance of confirming ‘I cannot understand mathematics’.

If the pandemic brings no other benefits, it will surely answer the question: “Why is maths relevant to my life?” But this won’t necessarily help people to process the meaning behind large numbers and complicated graphs presented on the news, and could make the national maths anxiety epidemic even worse.

Everybody knows that people are good at some things and weaker at others. However, in mathematics, a ‘can’t do’ attitude is all too prevalent even in the face of evidence to the contrary. A poll conducted by Ipsos MORI in 2018 found that more than a third of 15 to 24-year-olds felt anxious when shown a maths question, anxious to the point of feeling ill.

Why do so many people feel this way, and what might be done about it?

I was largely unaware of the depth and pervasiveness of maths anxiety until I became a teacher. In getting to know my students, I talked to them about their feelings about maths. Listening to students led me to seek in my research to find new ways to teach the subject, ways that allowed learners to become more autonomous, to take control of their own learning and thus be less anxious and alienated. One strand of this endeavour has been to use computer programming to express and model mathematical ideas. Learners receive feedback after programming a model that can be the object of reflection and ‘debugging’, thus avoiding ‘being shown up in the classroom’.

This work culminated in the project I led with Richard Noss, UCL ScratchMaths (SM) project. It’s a longitudinal two-year intervention at the intersection of mathematics and computing, targeted for 8 to 11-year-olds in English schools and involving programming in Scratch, to express, explore and share mathematical ideas. And crucially through its materials and pedagogy to address maths anxiety. So how?

Part of the problem is the nature of the Maths itself. Maths questions (in school at least) tend to have a right and a wrong answer. And worse, all too often getting something wrong in maths tends to be interpreted as ‘the person is stupid’. In addition, the high stakes nature of the subject in school can increase learners’ notion that maths is a competition. Being quick at maths is so overvalued. If you’re struggling to keep up, you should be able to go away and think the problem through or work it out in a group with your peers. It’s not a race to see who gets there first – that just adds to your anxiety.

Second, Maths is symbolic. You start with numbers but all too soon you proceed into algebra, with its Xs and Ys, because maths is about generalisations, looking for an overarching picture rather than a specific case. The problem is that far too many people do not understand what on earth these Xs and Ys are. Yes we need to get to answers and to be fluent with those Xs and Ys, but what is critical for educators is to seek to ensure that learners appreciate not only how to get an answer, but also the nature of the models themselves: presenting a glimpse of why they are performing those routines and calculations. If they cannot do that, maths becomes a meaningless dance of symbols and if you get lost in the dance with no way out it is bound to provoke anxiety.

Which brings us back to Covid-19. Take another look at that equation above or one of many graphs you have seen recently. Do they make sense to you? Can we better appreciate the meaning of a mathematical model, in order that we can assess its strengths and limitations?  Hopefully this will make us less anxious…

Discover more about ScratchMaths

A version of this BLOG article appeared in Issue 7 of Portico magazine, published October 2020.



Print Friendly, PDF & Email

2 Responses to “Maths anxiety: how can we overcome the ‘can’t do’ attitude?”

  • 1
    Tim Coote wrote on 2 December 2020:

    Is there a flip-side to the anxiety creation of right/wrong answers to maths questions? Some people, and I’ve no idea how many, are anxious about subjects such as English, where the ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ of an answer can be very opaque.

  • 2
    SueJW wrote on 3 December 2020:

    It can be helpful to think of “can’t do” as a self defence mechanism against further “pain” of humiliation or …

    The question might usefully become one of psychological safety.