28 Replies to “Maths Anxiety is Not a Thing”

  1. I think this is a bit like if I said, “my foot hurts.” And you said, “no, it doesn’t.” What kind of proof would you expect of people’s internal experiences?

    1. Thanks, wst.

      I’m honestly not trolling, or trying to minimise people’s feelings or experiences, although I can see how it might seem like that. But I want people to be careful with their terms, and how they use them.

      I understand that people can feel fear or discomfort or loathing or stress or anxiety, towards maths or almost anything. I’m not expecting individuals to prove what they feel. But there is a whole discipline devoted to such feelings and their definition and analysis and treatment.

      The natural place to begin, I would assume, is with a definition. What is “maths anxiety”?

      1. With the big disclaimer that I am not an expert, I would define it as the problem of having an excessive, irrational fear response to mathematics. It is akin to responding physiologically to some maths-related stimulus as if it were a threat to you – with the mental distractions that come with that: raised heartbeat, fight/flight/freeze impulses, difficulty focusing and processing information, feeling sick in the stomach, dizziness, difficulty with breathing normally, crying, difficulty talking (a freeze response). I think the particulars would vary from person to person. Some people might respond to seeing a bunch of digits on a page, others to people talking using mathematical jargon. Others to some particular aspect of the situation they find themselves in (mathematics classroom activities perhaps?).

        1. Thanks wst, with the big disclaimer that I like to pretend to be an expert, that sounds good and helpful. I’ll note your adjectives:

          excessive, irrational fear response to mathematics.

          Do you think you experienced that, and as well the physical symptoms?

          1. Yes, I did at times. Especially the crying, feeling sick in the stomach, and freeze-response aspects. For me it is usually related to being confused when trying to understand what people are saying. I enjoy mathematics once I understand what people are saying (or once I’m past the stage of needing to interpret the problem and can deal with what I think of as the actual mathematical part of). I don’t enjoy hearing “oh, you don’t even know what blah-blah-blah means? You must not know anything at all!”

            1. Good. I’m happy to acknowledge you proved me wrong.

              If you don’t mind me asking, do you think your maths anxiety is a component of a more general anxiousness? And may I ask what you did about the maths anxiety when it occurred?

              Feel free to tell me to bugger off, and I want to go back to the general question, but knowing more about the causes and remedies for you seems worthwhile.

              1. Yes, maths anxiety is probably part of general anxiousness. But what happens is that you can develop a strong association between a particular thing and bad experiences or thoughts. Then your anxiety becomes more specific and will be extremely responsive to a particular thing.

                What I did was: accept that I am slower than other people at the initial step of making sense of symbols and words. I think it’s important not to overgeneralise and jump to conclusions based on that. I learned to feel okay (partly) with people thinking I’m stupid – but I could do that more.

                By persevering, I had positive experiences (e.g., solving problems, proving results) which helped rewrite over the fear response. (I think this would be called exposure therapy.) When it was bad, I might mix in things that I unequivocally enjoy (colour-coding my notes, drawing pretty diagrams, approaching problems in a ‘dumb’ slow way if I wanted) to get over the initial unease. And take paracetamol for the crying headaches.

                1. Thanks, wst. Do you have any guesses of how common you think such anxiety is among, say, primary students?

                  1. I really don’t know, sorry. I think everyone is anxious some of the time, so it’s a matter of how many slip into the extreme end of having it significantly affect them. And a lot would probably hide it anyway and then I wouldn’t know.

                    1. Thanks, wst. Of course, it’s not your job to hazard a guess the prevalence of “maths anxiety” along the lines as you’ve described it. But I’ll hazard a guess: very low. It’s in this sense that I do not believe “maths anxiety” is a thing.

      2. Hi,

        I’m curious – do you believe Social Anxiety is real? If you say yes, how’s that different from believing in Math Anxiety?

        I’m by no means, a psychologist, but from what I understand, anxiety can take many forms. There’s a condition called “generalized anxiety” disorder, which means, you just have anxiety across the board. And then, there’re anxieties that you experience only under special circumstances – specialized anxiety. Social anxiety is one, math anxiety is another…

        1. Hi Johnald,

          I think I’ve laid out my position pretty clearly in the discussion with wst, but here’s a summary.

          1) Anxiety is a thing.

          I think wst describes their anxiety well, and it fits with standard psychological definitions.

          2) Anxiety disorders are a thing.

          We all get anxious at certain times. The real issue is when the extent and prevalence of anxiety becomes seriously and consistently debilitating.

          3) Maths anxiety is a thing.

          Anxiety can be triggered by, or more focussed on, different things. That can include maths, or maths tests or whatever.

          4) Maths anxiety can be a manifestation of general anxiety.

          Even if a kid has something reasonably identifiable as “maths anxiety”, particularly to the level of a disorder, one should keep in mind that the maths anxiety may, and I’d suggest much more often than not, stem from a more general psychological issue.

          5) Maths anxiety is not common and is in general no big deal.

          This is all small beer. Sure, it is big beer for the kid who has anxiety. But I simply do not believe that “maths anxiety” is common with the accepted usages of the terms “anxiety” and “anxiety disorder”.

          In particular, kids can have all manner of negative emotions towards maths: stress, distaste, fear and so on. These emotions are of course always worth addressing, specifically with each kid and as general cultural phenomena. But these emotions do not amount to anxiety.

          6) People trust Jo Boaler at their peril.

          Boaler is where this “anxiety” discussion started, when I trolled myself while writing on Boaler’s latest “poor little me” plea.

          Boaler wrote,

          “For about one third of students the onset of timed testing is the beginning of math anxiety…“.

          Ashman wrote about hunting for the supposed evidence for Boaler’s “one third” and coming up empty handed.

          Ashman is a careful, evidence-based guy. I’m not. I approach this believing that I know maths very well, know kids reasonably well and that I have a modicum of common sense. So, where Ashman statedly concludes “no evidence [that he could find] for Boaler’s ‘one third’ “, my conclusion is different: Boaler’s claim is absurd.

  2. Maths anxiety is probably a thing, but mostly artificial. Of course, dyscalculia probably exists, but it probably is the vast minority of so-called cases of “maths anxiety.” I say probably because I haven’t read enough about this to determine whether these phenomena really exist, or are just made up.

    If you keep telling kids that they should be, or that it’s normal to be anxious about maths, it’s natural that some amount of kids will become “anxious” about it. Same thing with anxiety in general, or ADHD, or whatever is trendy at the current moment.

  3. I feel like maths anxiety is real in the sense that students, understandably, get anxious about any subject that they struggle with but are under pressure to perform well in, including maths. I suppose this isn’t what you mean though. I would imagine that, for example, English anxiety exists just the same among students who struggle with writing essays. But I hear about ‘maths anxiety’ much more often than ‘English anxiety’ (which I hear never about).

    I don’t know whether or not maths generally incurs more anxiety than other subjects. I think that if it does, a likely culprit might be placebo effect from the ubiquity of the term ‘maths anxiety’. I do also think it might have something to do with how performance in maths seems to be more often considered a predictor of intelligence than performance in other subjects is. In both cases the issue isn’t with mathematics itself. In this sense I agree that ‘maths anxiety’ caused specifically by the content of maths is not a thing.

    1. That’s the point. Students, everyone, gets stressed about all manner of things, all the time. It doesn’t mean that such stress amounts to a debilitating, clinical condition.

      1. Agreed, though I’ve never heard of maths anxiety being considered clinical. I’ve only ever encountered it as a casual collocation, albeit one that reflects a cultural disinclination towards maths. If the issue were solely a general one about over-exaggerating anxieties, I think I’d hear more about English anxiety…

        1. And this is, again, the point: anxiety is a thing, but “maths anxiety” is just a vague term for a range of emotions and behaviours, all worth attention, some serious, most not.

  4. ‘GAD (generalised anxiety disorder) is a long-term condition that causes you to feel anxious about a wide range of situations and issues, rather than one specific event.’

    Sometimes it can manifest as ‘math anxiety’, ‘school anxiety’, ‘physics anxiety’, ‘first date anxiety’, ‘stage anxiety’ or anything else that worries one at that moment. People susceptive to anxiety might worry about everything, but that doesn’t mean they have 50 different ‘anxieties’.
    Correlation and causality aren’t the same things.

  5. At our year 11/12 school the maths and science faculties (at least) recognise that the anxiety students often claim is mostly guilt. The students know they haven’t done homework, know they haven’t learned concepts and processes, and thus know they won’t score well on an assessment. Nobody enjoys getting a test back that says 55%.

    There are students with definite medical conditions. Their anxiety manifests differently to that of those previously described.

    1. I don’t agree that “Nobody enjoys getting a test back that says 55%.” Some students will be delighted!

  6. A nice group of comments here.

    I believe in context. The definition up above is great. I think what I personally don’t like is when math anxiety is talked about as an inevitable prevalent state that almost every student finds themselves in. Without strategies to mitigate math anxiety, proper teaching can therefore not occur. I find this blurs or moves the focus from teaching actual math to … other things.

    Disclaimer: as was said above, medical conditions exist and are serious (and rare).

    1. How about having to write a paper for English class anxiety? Is that a thing now? Can we define it as some pseudopsychological condition? Will it get me out of stuff?

      1. The situation is analogous, I presume, if it were to be pushed. Let’s wait for it to catch on and see how English teachers react to the incoming pressure (any guess on who might play the role of Boaler..).

        1. I think “reading anxiety” is a thing (it gets hits if you Google it). And speaking anxiety of course. I guess English involves pretty broad skills that could affect people in all kinds of ways. And it seems like English teachers have always had to carefully choose texts to make sure they’re approachable but also challenging.

          I wonder if the analogous thing (to not making kids do timed quizzes) would be not making kids read out loud in class anymore. When I was at school, we would read texts out loud (each student reading a paragraph) like that was a pretty normal thing to do. One time I was filling in for a class with the instructions “get students to read [a chapter]”. I suggested reading a paragraph each around the room, but the students seemed horrified by the idea. So, they just each read it (or maybe didn’t) on their own. I keep meaning to ask someone how you’re supposed to do in-class reading nowadays.

          1. Sheesh. “Gets Google hits” is not the determiner of whether a purported thing is a thing.

            Reading anxiety is no more a thing than maths anxiety. This is all nonsense.

  7. I am in the middle of an on-line conference dealing with numeracy. ‘Maths anxiety’ was mentioned. So I asked Marty’s question – with less provocative wording. I asked “Is ‘Maths anxiety’ different from other types of anxiety”? The speaker admitted that he was not an expert on anxiety but the term has been around for a long time. Another delegate suggested that it was not different in essence from other types of anxiety: it’s just that maths is the trigger.

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