Maths Anxiety Is Still Not a Thing

I’m late to this. Things have been busy, and not good. Still, the work goes on and this has to be done.

Last week, The Centre For Independent Studies came out with yet another “Analysis Paper”: Facing Up to Maths Anxiety. The paper is by “eminent professor David C Geary” and was launched with the standard fanfare, including a Canberra Times op ed by Geary and a companion ABC article by CIS’s Lead Education Pontificator, Glenn Fahey.

I’m not going to get into the details of Geary’s paper. In brief, Geary appears to be a gun hired to promote CIS’s standard line. Which is not to imply that Geary is insincere or that CIS’s line is wrong, and indeed I agree with their line. Unlike the typical articles on maths anxiety, Geary and Fahey suggest strongly that the way to deal with “maths anxiety” and, more importantly, how to avoid “maths anxiety” in the first place, is to focus upon properly structured learning: that is, teach the kids some maths. Unfortunately, Geary and Fahey argue this obvious but essential point on the basis of “maths anxiety” fear-mongering and “brain imaging studies”, and whatnot. This is needless and distracting, and it is a dangerous, double-edged game. Geary and Fahey are batting for the right team, they’re just not batting very well. Neither of them is Steve Waugh, or even Mark Waugh. They’re more like Dean Waugh. Maybe Evelyn Waugh.

As the title suggests and as regular readers would well understand, the aim of this post is to push the point that maths anxiety is not a thing. In effect, “maths anxiety” is just a scary blanket term for Bad Maths Vibes, and the blanket term does what blankets do: it cloaks what is really there, only making it harder to identify the substantive issues of students’/teachers’/parents’ attitudes to mathematics, both of individuals and as general cultural phenomena. I won’t reargue the details; readers can check on previous claims and discussion herehere, hereherehere and here. What I want to do in this post is to look at Geary and Fahey’s claim that maths anxiety is a thing, and supposedly a common thing.

In the Executive Summary (sheesh) of his paper, Geary semi-defines mathematics anxiety:

Mathematics anxiety is manifested as a fear or apprehension of mathematical activities­.

So, hands up whoever has never felt “apprehension” when approaching some mathematical task? And maybe even “fear”? Which of course has much stronger connotations.

Geary seems aware that mathematics anxiety, so semi-defined, is maybe no big deal, is perhaps just a bit of Bad Maths Vibes. He indicates when this “fear” or “apprehension” is a big deal:

Mathematics anxiety should be considered as an issue if it is persistently associated with lower-than-expected performance in mathematics based on standardised maths measures; avoidance of beneficial mathematics activities or coursework; or, high subjective feelings of discomfort during mathematics activities.

We can all agree that such effects, once clearly and properly defined, would be some cause for concern. But that is a poor argument for the labelling of these effects, even if they are “persistent”, with a Boogie Man term such as “anxiety”. A lower-than-expected performance on a maths test once, or even persistently, is hardly on par with, for example, a life-destroying inability to leave the house.

In any case, the body of Geary’s paper muddies his two-part approach to mathematics anxiety. He discusses everything with the presumptive tone that mathematics anxiety is, as he has semi-defined it, in and of itself an “issue”. Which it is not. It is also no great surprise, that Geary’s op ed and Fahey’s puff article include little of this nuance. it is even less surprising that the various media reports on Geary’s paper include none of this nuance: see here, here, here, here, and here.

So, with Geary having kind of sort of defined maths anxiety, how prevalent is it? For this, Geary and Fahey reference others’ work, which raises an obvious problem: there is not remotely an agreed upon definition.1 But it also turns out not to matter much, since Geary and Fahey’s referencing is a mess.

Geary provides two percentages on the prevalence of maths anxiety. First, on “high level anxiety”:

In all, it appears that 4-5% of children and adults report relatively high levels of mathematics anxiety …

It is possible that this “high level” anxiety is what can, for once, reasonably be termed “anxiety”, and so the percentage might be reasonable. Geary, however, provides no reference for the percentage, and so it is impossible to be sure of anything, to make any proper sense of it whatsoever.2

On maths anxiety more generally, Geary has,

The 2017 Westpac Numeracy Study found maths anxiety affects as many as a third of adults and children in Australia.

Yes, and “as many as a third” of my pets are unicorns.3 So what? But, at least this time Geary names the study upon which he relies, and so presumably we can figure out the so what. Except that Geary provides no proper reference to the study, nothing beyond the title. Why did Geary fail to properly reference the Westpac “study”? My guess, for reasons I give below, is because Geary’s never seen it.

Fahey’s puff article is based upon the same “fear” or “apprehension” semi-definition, and he indicates the same percentage estimates as Geary:

The 2017 Westpac Numeracy Study found around one in three Australians are affected by [maths anxiety], and high levels of distress about maths affects around one in 20.

Fahey follows Geary in providing no reference for the “one in 20”, but he does provide a link for the “around one in three”. Except, it is not a link to the 2017 Westpac Numeracy Study. Instead, Fahey links to a 2022 ABC article on maths anxiety, by science reporter Gemma Conroy. Our quest is not at an end.

Conroy, who refers to maths anxiety as “the fear, dread and worry many people experience when they have to tackle a numerical task”, also discusses its prevalence:

While estimates of how many people experience maths anxiety vary, studies have suggested that it’s somewhere between 6 to 17 per cent of the population.

The 2017 Westpac Numeracy Study found maths anxiety affects as many as a third of adults and children in Australia.

So, now we have more percentages to chase down, but first a couple other things to note. Strikingly, Geary‘s Westpac quote is a verbatim repeat of Conroy‘s.4 One might let that slide as sloppiness but, at minimum, it suggests that eminent professor David C Geary made no proper effort to locate the answer to the critical question of the prevalence of maths anxiety. Secondly, Conroy seems unperturbed that the “6 to 17 per cent” estimate contradicts the “as many as a third” estimate. Well, except in as much as the “as many as” makes the second estimate meaningless.

As for backing up her percentages, Conroy provides a reference of sorts to the “studies” for her “6 to 17 per cent”, to a 2018 AMSI Research Report on maths anxiety. Without a pinpoint reference, however, one has to hunt through all thirty pages of AMSI’s report for the percentages and the “studies” from which they came. Which I did. And I found nothing.

The “6 to 17” percentages might be somewhere in AMSI’s report, but I simply couldn’t find them.5 Not that I doubt that some studies, using some definition of “maths anxiety”, arrived at the suggested percentages. But just once it’d be nice to have a proper reference to an estimate on the prevalence of maths anxiety, so that one might attempt to make proper sense of the claim.

That was a fun digression, but let’s not forget why we’re here. Our Quest is to find the 2017 Westpac Numeracy Study, which was not in Geary and for which Fahey referred to Conroy. And so we look through Conroy, and we find … nothing.

Simply, no one has a proper reference to the 2017 Westpac Numeracy Study, and we simply couldn’t find it. All we could find was a May 2017 Westpac media release, announcing some results from their “study”. Which makes no mention of “anxiety”. And which may be all there is.

Westpac’s media release makes a few things clearly unclear, however. First, Westpac’s study was not a study; it was a survey, weighted for population estimates and so on, and that’s it. As such, the Study “found” nothing beyond what some people claimed to believe. Secondly, Westpac does not indicate the precise questions people were asked. Thirdly, Westpac’s “study” was conducted as part of a campaign/promotion to offer free access to Mathspace, one of those technosaviours we all love so much.

And that’s almost it. Our quest is almost at an end. Except, there are a few stray media references around September 2017 that do refer to “maths anxiety” in relation to Westpac’s study. There, anxiety percentages of 31% (adults) and 34% (children) appear, as “new insights” to the study, but with only mathspace-related links to click. Presumably Westpac had a second media release but, if so, I was unable to find it. Anyway, as it stands, it is impossible to attach any meaning to Westpac’s percentages.

And there you have it. That’s my take on eminent professor David C Geary’s Analysis Paper on maths anxiety. Of course this blog hardly matches the prestige of Geary, or of a centre that studies independently. But I think I have a way to provide this post with the desired professional polish:

Executive Summary

  • Maths anxiety is still not a thing.


1) I spent a decent amount of time down rabbit holes, trying to determine how the edu-psych types define and use the term “mathematics anxiety”. I found a very wide variety of rabbits. I also found what appears to be a strange hole, which is probably worth a separate post.

2) The referencing in Geary’s paper is poor throughout. Some references are provided in endnotes, but there is no pinpointing and no complete list of references is provided.

3) As much as a third, not “as many”. It’s not Geary’s fault, however.

4) See? It wasn’t Geary’s fault.

5) It would appear that the 6% and 17% may come from here and here, the references and percentages being quoted in this paper (p 3), which AMSI lists as a reference.

6) AMSI issued a media statement promoting Conroy’s article, and including the same contradictory percentages. It’s a reasonable guess that AMSI simply fed Conroy the percentages.

8 Replies to “Maths Anxiety Is Still Not a Thing”

  1. “ But I think I have a way to provide this post with the desired professional polish:… Executive Summary”
    Marty you started my day with a big chuckle and for that I thank you.

  2. “Mathematics anxiety … persistently associated with lower-than-expected performance in mathematics based on standardised maths measures”
    What does that even mean? Does it mean that some people are consistently below average in maths compared to everyone else? In breaking news, water is wet. It’s impossible for everyone to be above the average.

    “avoidance of beneficial [ ] activities or coursework; or, high subjective feelings of discomfort during [ ] activities.”
    Every single person on the planet can fill in the blank with something. What makes people who fill in the blank with maths more special than everyone else? I’m a teacher and I can fill in the blank with “teacher PD”. Who saves me? I just get told to suck it up. What about the people who insert ‘sport’ into the blank? Who saves them? They get told they’re not team players, to man up. I am so fed up with the BS ‘maths anxiety’ hall pass handed out to people.

    1. Thanks, anothermouse.

      On your first point, I think you’re misreading Geary somewhat, but it’s also why I qualified my agreement with Geary with “clearly and properly defined”. I think “lower-than-expected” is intended to refer to the expectation for an individual. This seems reasonable, at least in principle. We’ve all had students who frustrated themselves, and us, with doing poorly by avoiding the proper work. We’ve all done it ourselves. But, …

      On your second point, I agree entirely. There’s nothing profoundly mathsy about this stuff, and it’s not remotely “anxiety” in any proper sense of the term. It’s a thing, and an important thing, but it’s not anxiety, and often enough “suck it up” is the only reasonable approach to dealing with it.

      1. I don’t understand how the “expectation for an individual” is established. Are they (secretly) tested in such a way that ‘mathematics anxiety’ is (mostly) removed to establish a baseline? Were they (less anxious and) more capable in the past and are being measured against that past performance? It all sounds vague and handwavy to me (but I’m sure many careers have been built on it), like looking at an inkblot.

        1. Nah. You’re arguing too strongly.

          Let’s forget the anxiety shit. We agree that the maths anxiety industry is simply a grift. But the fact is that there are students who underperform, in various reasonable senses of the word, and for various reasons. Any decent teacher is on the lookout for such students. Sure, even identifying such kids is not as simple as dipping the kids in water and seeing if they turn red or blue. But the kids are there nonetheless.

  3. While these people spend time defining what anxiety in the expression ‘mathematical anxiety’ means, they somehow fall short in determining what mathematics means. Is there any particular type of mathematics that generates anxiety, or does all of it have the same effect? What about a year eight student tasked with an elementary arithmetic problem within four basic operators? Will they also have mathematical anxiety? Is it only fractions, or algebra, or geometry, or all of it at any age? In what circumstances does mathematical anxiety manifest itself? Is it only when students spend less than one hour a week doing homework and not listening in class, or is it everyone disregarding effort? Is it a ubiquitous syndrome observed in every population, ignoring any other factors such as level of mathetics, number of hours spent studying mathetics, quality of the teacher, sex, and success in other subjects? There are plenty of questions to answer before we even consider ‘mathematical anxiety as a separate syndrome.

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