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If maths anxiety could talk: What do maths-anxious ex-pupils want to say to the teaching profession?

Fay Cosgrove, PhD candidate at Cardiff University

Having recently completed a small exploratory study (124 respondents) of the way that maths-anxious undergraduates in the UK make sense of their maths anxiety (MA), I was prompted to consider: had I heard their reflections sooner, would I have been better positioned to help my anxious primary school pupils? 

My study trialled a novel iterative survey version of a research method called the Imitation Game (Collins et al., 2006) which is itself based on the Turing Test (Turing, 1950), in which a computer is considered artificial intelligence if its responses are indistinguishable from those of a human. The Imitation Game is designed to capture the ‘groupishness’ (Evans et al., 2019) of groups and I employed a survey version of it to capture the shared elements of MA that are distinctive and characteristic; I wanted to know what experiences, thoughts and feelings best embody MA. Ethical approval was granted by the university and all research council and university ethics guidance was adhered to. 

The survey asked participants to declare themselves maths-anxious or not. Those who declared no MA answered a question pretending that they were anxious about maths in order to capture their level of understanding of the experience of MA through their ability to empathise with those who are anxious about maths. Those who declared that they were maths-anxious were asked to answer the same question without pretending. The question changed from iteration to iteration and was created by anxious participants from previous iterations. The question was designed to help them determine the anxious from the non-anxious if shown only the anonymised answers to their question and thus identify distinctive shared aspects of MA. This challenge prompted them to sort through their perceptions of MA and select an element that they thought was most characteristic. Their responses raised issues about physical stress sensations, personal histories and school experiences, and about distracting, intrusive thoughts, the pressure of performance and feelings about everyday maths. Reading their comments made me reflect on my own classroom praxis. 

What is ostensibly ‘good practice’ looks different through the eyes of the maths-anxious participant. Multiple undergraduates recalled attempts to avoid the teacher’s gaze so as not to be chosen to answer a question during a whole-class discussion. They described worrying about their voice wavering and their answers being wrong in front of their peers. From the participants’ point of view, some well-respected assessment-for-learning (AfL) techniques exacerbate the detrimental effects of MA. For example, one such strategy encourages the teacher to select pupils to answer questions at random in an effort to increase the attention paid by all pupils because they know they might be selected at any time. Not only does this technique reduce teacher agency in strategically directing individualised questions by overruling skilled questioning with random name-draws but it could also increase the pressure and stress felt by maths-anxious pupils. 

‘From the participants’ point of view, some well-respected assessment-for-learning (AfL) techniques exacerbate the detrimental effects of maths anxiety.’ 

The recent focus on increasing pupil awareness of ‘next steps’ may also be compounding MA. Participants commonly discussed the negative emotions that come from perceiving oneself as falling behind one’s peers; feeling like you are the only one struggling; the only one who doesn’t understand; or that you yourself are part of the problem because you are overthinking, which can exacerbate the cognitive resource-sapping nature of MA. 

Teachers’ mathematical methods were perceived as inflexible, and participants saw maths as an unimaginative and uncreative subject. When teachers overtly value correct answers over reasoning and exploration of connections, maths seems a judgemental discipline and the maths-anxious actively avoid it. 

Recently, increased curriculum time has been devoted to improved awareness of mental health, and coping strategies for the stresses of life are taught explicitly. I suggest that it is time to apply the same principle to the teaching of maths. My undergraduate participants have highlighted that teachers actively contribute to their maths anxiety. If our goal is to help every pupil achieve their mathematical potential, we must attend to the emotional implications of our praxis to ensure we are at least MA-aware, and ideally MA-reducing. In a previous BERA Blog post I offer some simple strategies to reduce MA. 


Collins, H., Evans, R., Ribeiro, R., & Hall, M. (2006). Experiments with interactional expertise. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A, 37(4), 656–674.   

Evans, R., Collins, H., Weinel, M., Lyttleton-Smith, J., O’Mahoney, H., & Leonard-Clarke, W. (2019). Groups and individuals: Conformity and diversity in the performance of gendered identities. The British Journal of Sociology, 70(4), 1561–1581.   

Turing, A. M. (1950). Computing machinery and intelligence. Mind, 59, 433–460.