What is maths anxiety?

My idea for this topic is to start with some key definitions and descriptions which reflect the varied nature of maths anxiety and its impact.

1. ‘Over and above common cognitive demands and neurological representations and functions, performance in reading and arithmetic is influenced by a number of motivational and emotional factors such as need of achievement, task orientation, helplessness, depression, anxiety, self-esteem, self-concept, locus of control …’ (Lundberg and Sterner, 2006)

2. Whereas cognitive ability reflects what an individual can do, personality traits reflect what an individual will do.

3. Anxiety occurs when an anticipated event is expected to make demands for which the person is unprepared.

4. Feelings of tension and anxiety that interfere with the manipulation of numbers and the solving of mathematical problems in a wide variety of ordinary life and academic situations.

5. Mental block anxiety can be triggered by a symbol or a concept that creates a barrier for the person learning maths. (Division and fractions are top problems for many!)

6. Socio-cultural maths anxiety is a consequence of common beliefs about maths, such as, if you cannot learn facts you will never be any good at maths and, as a way of reducing anxiety, ‘I’ll never need this stuff when I leave school.’

7. Anxiety is a state of discomfort which occurs in response to situations involving mathematical tasks which are perceived as threatening to self-esteem.

8. Maths anxiety is subjective. Some children and adults hide it or underplay it.

Maths anxiety is part of an escalation of severity of emotional impact.

Worry and anxiety – A set of responses to an unknown, imprecise or ill-defined threat; often anticipatory in nature and created by the imagination. It’s more associated with the need to be prepared. Worry leads to feeling anxious.

Fear and panic – A set of responses to a known, precise, well defined threat, which can be real or vividly imagined. It’s mainly about avoidance and escape. In its extreme form, fear becomes panic.

Does this start at 7 years old (or even younger) as I mentioned above?


As the technology for looking at brains becomes ever more sophisticated, we can show that anxiety is real. For example,

In the first fMRI study to examine math anxiety in children, Young, Wu, and Menon (2012) found brain activations in 7 to 9 - year old children that tell a similar story to that found in adult samples.

That is, high math anxious children exhibited stronger activation in the same part of the brain as previously tied to the learned fear response in adults.

Working memory

Working memory is vital to maths, especially mental arithmetic. Anxiety influences this, too as the highly regarded specialist Ashcraft found. In maths tasks that rely on the working memory system, high maths anxious subjects show degraded performance either in speed or accuracy.

(Having to do maths quickly can create anxiety).


It is important to explore different methods for solving problems, but choice can make some students anxious. These students want ONE method and it must be as universal as possible. ‘Don’t explain this to me. Give me one method that will work for any similar example I will ever meet!’ This needs empathetic classroom management.

Classroom factors and learner characteristics that contribute to maths anxiety.

A poor understanding and knowledge of maths and thus a lack of confidence.

Inappropriate instruction, for example, lack of visual support.

Badly designed work tasks, which may include presenting too many examples.

A curriculum that does not take into account the range of learners at whom it is targeted.

The extreme judgmental nature of maths… answers are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’….and the way marks are given out. For example, reading results out loud to the whole class and, sometimes, star charts

Inconsistency, change and uncertainty. Early maths is full of examples, for example, whole numbers go, one, tens, hundreds, thousands. Decimal numbers go tenths, hundredths, thousandths. There are no oneths! We say fifteen and write 15, the reverse order.

Fear of negative evaluation

Risk taking, which is closely linked to negative evaluation. Classrooms need a risk-taking ethos.

Avoidance and withdrawal. An effective way of dealing with negative evaluation is not to do the work.

The design and mathematical structure of tests, for example, in the UK, 10 - year old students are going to be tested on multiplication fact recall, but at 6 second intervals, which will be too fast for some students for some facts. Withdrawal may well follow.

Teachers who do not listen to their students and/or do not encourage risk-free discussions. Discussion has the huge benefit of encouraging meta-cognition.

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