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A moment to breathe: How reflection can reduce teacher maths anxiety

Fay Cosgrove

This post explores the need for professional learning development to reduce teacher maths anxiety, and follows up on a recent blog post about reducing pupil maths anxiety.

Worldwide demand for developments in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) have led many governments to aim to improve STEM education; however, these efforts sometimes overlook the role of pupil and teacher attitudes, including maths anxiety (MA), in engagement with STEM (Foley et al., 2017).

Pupil learning is negatively affected by teacher MA (Schaeffer at al., 2021), yet seldom does professional development address subject-specific issues like this (Strong & Baron, 2004). Despite effective examples of MA-reducing interventions for pre-service primary teachers (Tooke & Lindstrom, 1998), none exist for their in-service counterparts.

Therefore, in 2018, I set out to explore how video-assisted, theoretically grounded reflection might reduce teacher MA (Cosgrove, 2018). In my study, three teachers video-recorded themselves teaching maths in their primary classrooms on four occasions each over three months. The theoretical framework they drew on in their reflections is called the ‘knowledge quartet’ (KQ) and is designed to facilitate both planning and reflection on maths teaching (Rowland et al., 2009). Participants selected critical incidents from their lessons as either strengths or opportunities and matched them with aspects of the KQ’s four dimensions: Foundation, Transformation, Connection and Contingency (see figure 1). They discussed these incidents during four paired reflection sessions.


Figure 1: The four dimensions of the knowledge quartet (KQ)

Participants completed adapted versions of MA and teaching efficacy scales (how effective a teacher feels their teaching to be) pre- and post-intervention. They were based heavily on Suinn & Winston’s (2003) 30-item Mathematics Anxiety Rating Scale and Bandura’s Teaching Efficacy Questionnaire. The resultant scales retained only some of the validity and reliability of the originals, so scores were triangulated with pre- and post-intervention interview data and with each other (assuming that MA and teaching efficacy are negatively correlated, Gresham, 2009).

The two participants with the highest initial anxiety scores had volunteered because their MA contributed to workplace stress, and by the end of the intervention both felt that even a short period of reflection had reduced anxiety. Some scores indicated considerable reductions in MA and increases in teaching efficacy. This was supported by interview comments that they felt less worried while teaching maths and more able to facilitate pupil learning. The participant with the lowest initial MA reported little change. Given that the scales were not validated and that the sample was small, these results cannot be generalised; but they do suggest that reflection may reduce MA.

‘While more research is needed to confirm these findings and to determine when, how and for whom such an approach might be effective, it seems to be possible to reduce teacher MA using relatively modest, but carefully designed, interventions.’

Aubusson et al. (2009) criticised many professional learning programmes as too passive to achieve their goals, but indications from this very small-scale research suggests that, with careful design, teachers can be equipped and empowered to actively develop their own attitudes and practice. While more research is needed to confirm these findings and to determine when, how and for whom such an approach might be effective, it seems to be possible to reduce teacher MA using relatively modest, but carefully designed, interventions. There are answers within our realm of professional influence if we choose to use them.

If teacher MA can be reduced, it follows that pupil attitudes (and achievement in maths) can be improved. Reducing anxiety implies enhancing wellbeing, contributing to better retention of teachers, and promoting more positive feelings towards maths for both pupils and teachers.


References

Aubusson, P., Ewing, R., & Hoban, G. (2009). Action learning in schools. Routledge.

Cosgrave, F. (2018). Reducing mathematics anxiety in primary school teachers through collaborative reflection using the knowledge quartet. https://bsrlm.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/BSRLM-CP-38-2-05.pdf

Foley, A., Herts, J., Borgonovi, F., Guerriero, S., Levin, S., & Beilock, S. (2017). The math anxiety-performance link: A global phenomenon. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 26(1), 52–58. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721416672463

Gresham, G. (2009). An examination of mathematics teacher efficacy and mathematics anxiety in elementary pre-service teachers. The Journal of Classroom Interaction, 44(2), 22–38. https://www.jstor.org/stable/23869610

Rowland, T., Turner, F., Thwaites, A., & Huckstep, P. (2009). Developing primary mathematics teaching: Reflecting on practice with the knowledge quartet. Sage.

Schaeffer, M. W., Rozek, C. S., Maloney, E. A., Berkowitz, T., Levine, S. C., & Beilock, S. L. (2021). Elementary school teachers’ math anxiety and students’ math learning: A large‐scale replication. Developmental Science, 24(4). https://doi.org/10.1111/desc.13080

Strong, M., & Baron, W. (2004). An analysis of mentoring conversations with beginning teachers: Suggestions and responses. Teaching and Teacher Education, 20(1), 47–57. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tate.2003.09.005

Suinn, R., & Winston, E. (2003). The Mathematics Anxiety Rating Scale, a brief version: Psychometric data. Psychological Reports, 92(1), 167–173. https://doi.org/10.2466/pr0.2003.92.1.167

Tooke, D. J., & Lindstrom, L. C. (1998). Effectiveness of a mathematics methods course in reducing math anxiety of preservice elementary teachers. School Science and Mathematics, 98(3), 136–39. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1949-8594.1998.tb17406.x

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