The myth of being 'bad' at maths
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You’re not destined to be bad at maths. You just may need to tackle your ‘mathephobia’.

Are you a parent who dreads having to help with maths homework? In a restaurant, do you hate having to calculate the tip on a bill? Does understanding your mortgage interest payments seem like an unsurmountable task?

If so, you’re definitely not alone. Research has shown that in the US, 93% of adults say they have some level of maths anxiety. And it’s not just adults: some 31% of 15- and 16-year-olds across 34 countries say they get very nervous doing maths problems, 33% say they get tense doing maths homework and nearly 60% say they worry maths classes will be difficult, the Programme for International Student Assessment reports.

Sian Beilock, a cognitive scientist and president of Barnard College in New York, says the idea that you are either innately good or bad at maths persists in western countries, and it seems to be socially acceptable to be bad at maths. “You don’t hear adults bragging about not being a reading person, but you do hear them brag about not being a math person,” she says.

But many of us who fear maths or believe we’re bad at it may be trying to avoid problems that we are perfectly capable of solving with a little effort. So what is maths anxiety and where does it come from?

Research shows girls may be more prone to developing maths anxiety than boys (Credit: Getty Images)

Research shows girls may be more prone to developing maths anxiety than boys (Credit: Getty Images)

It takes root early

The term ‘Mathephobia’ was coined by mathematician Mary de Lellis Gough in 1953 after observing her struggling students; she described it as a “disease that proves fatal before its presence is detected”. Other experts have defined it as “the panic, helplessness, paralysis and mental disorganization that arises among some people when they are required to solve a mathematical problem” and “a general fear of contact with mathematics”.

Beilock and her colleagues have shown that maths anxiety can start as soon as we enter formal schooling. “Math is one of the first places in school in Western culture where we really learn about whether we got something right or wrong, and are exposed to being evaluated in timed tests,” she says.

Girls may be more prone to it than boys. Primary school teachers often have high levels of maths anxiety, says Beilock, and in the US and elsewhere, they are mostly female. Since young children tend to identify with adults of the same gender, this means girls are more susceptible to picking up maths anxiety from their female teachers. And having a female teacher with maths anxiety, Beilock’s research shows, makes girls more likely to believe gendered stereotypes about maths, leading to poorer achievement.

Research by Darcy Hallett, a psychologist at the Memorial University of Newfoundland in Canada who studies maths anxiety, also suggests that early experiences like having unapproachable, angry or frustrated teachers or feeling that the material is moving too quickly are associated with maths anxiety.

Teachers need to emphasise that mistakes are part of the learning process − Einar Skaalvik

Once you have it, it can be self-perpetuating. Worrying about it can make it worse, says Beilock, whose study of children between the ages of five and eight suggests maths anxiety might impede performance by taxing working memory. “Since our ability to focus is limited, our attention gets divided when we do more than one task at a time,” she says. “If you’re worried about having to do math, you may have an internal monologue saying you can’t do this and at the same time you’re trying to calculate numbers.”

And when people have maths anxiety they tend to avoid the subject, research from 2019 shows. But since maths builds on itself, avoiding it makes it harder to catch up.  “Math is foundational. If you miss a certain idea, it’s harder to learn the next one,” says Darcy Hallett. “And then you can fall behind, which might make math more of a targeted anxiety compared to other topics.”

Teachers who love maths

Avoiding maths at school might work for those choosing to specialise in other subjects. But society loses out if too many people, including some who could actually be good at maths, avoid taking maths-related university courses or pursuing maths-related careers.

In the US, both the private and government sectors are suffering from a lack of STEM workers, while other countries are also struggling to fill shortages. So, experts are looking at measures that can be taken to tackle maths anxiety at different times of life.

Beilock posits that addressing the issue can begin in the home. Her research suggests that parents can pass on their anxieties when they help children with maths homework. But research by Beilock and her colleagues suggests that greater exposure to maths in the home – in this case children who regularly played maths games on an app with their parents – helps children perform better at school. Beilock believes doing maths with their children would also give parents more confidence in their own abilities, making them less likely to perpetuate the idea that maths can’t be learned.

Shulamit Kahn, an associate professor at Boston University’s Questrom School of Business who has written about the gender gap in STEM, believes giving students, particularly girls, good role models “is critical, especially at a young age”. She thinks the key is to get people, especially women, who love maths teaching younger children. That might mean more specific recruitment of people who have maths experience or more on-the-job maths-related training, she says.

Students need to feel confident enough to speak up in maths classes, experts say (Credit: Getty Images)

Students need to feel confident enough to speak up in maths classes, experts say (Credit: Getty Images)

Helping students feel secure enough to speak up in class is also important, says Einar Skaalvik, who studies maths anxiety at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. “My research shows that students with math anxiety are scared of looking bad in front of others and won’t ask questions. Teachers need to emphasise that mistakes are part of the learning process.” It’s also critical, he says, to create a learning-oriented rather than performance-oriented environment; when schools communicate that grades are all that counts, it creates anxiety, and the ranking system can mask individual improvements.

Hallett, meanwhile, suggests tackling it as an anxiety issue. “We’re just scratching the surface in terms of what works, but treatments that seem to work are parallel to how you treat anxiety in general.” He and his colleagues are conducting a study with seven- to nine-year-olds using a mindfulness intervention. Preliminary results show that it might work with a certain group of kids. He says by focusing on the present moment and acknowledging their anxiety, students are better able to focus on tests and improve performance. As students see their performance improving, they don’t feel as much anxiety the next time around.

Reducing the anxiety

At the higher education level too, there is evidence that addressing the anxiety itself can help older students.

Beilock was part of a study from 2014 that showed giving university students with maths anxiety a short expressive writing exercise ahead of a maths tests helped improve their performance. For the written exercise, the students were asked to explore their feelings of anxiety about the test; the researchers suggest that the exercise may have helped students better understand and regulate their emotions, freeing up cognitive resources to improve working memory and performance in the subsequent test.

If we aren't helping those who are most math anxious best tackle activities involving math, it’s hard to see how folks can live up to their potential − Sian Beilock

That means that if you’re feeling stressed before a maths exam, it may help to spend a few minutes exploring those feelings before the exam begins. “It’s about making sure you’re interpreting your feelings correctly,” Beilock says. “Just because you have a fast heartbeat and sweaty palms, that does not necessarily mean you will fail.”

Some higher education providers offer classes to address maths anxiety. Montgomery College, a public community college in Maryland, has offered a class dedicated to overcoming maths phobia and building confidence for several years. John Hamman, a maths professor, says the course explores where the anxiety comes from and teaches coping strategies. “One thing we focus on is mindset. A lot of students come in with a fixed mindset specifically to math and the belief that you are either good at it or not. We talk a lot about… the importance of effort,” he says.

Greater exposure to maths – including in the home environment – can help students, research suggests (Credit: Getty Images)

Greater exposure to maths – including in the home environment – can help students, research suggests (Credit: Getty Images)

Research carried out at the college also showed that more autonomy when studying reduced students’ anxiety and improved performance. In response, the college introduced more self-paced learning; students solve problems online using an AI programme that fits questions to performance, with an instructor on hand to answer questions. Students are less likely to feel the pressure of falling behind the rest of the class or embarrassed to ask questions, and the instructor becomes less intimidating. “It is a subtle shift from looking at an instructor, to looking at a screen with an instructor and talking about solving a problem,” Hamman says. “But we find it can reduce anxiety.”

Of course, there will always be people who will want to avoid maths at all cost. But those people might benefit the most from tackling the anxiety caused by numbers, according to Beilock. “Math is part of everyday life,” she says. “If we aren't helping those who are most math anxious best tackle activities involving math, it’s hard to see how folks can live up to their potential.”

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