Mathematics anxiety is the apprehension and crippling fear of doing maths, whether it be in a maths classroom or taking a test. Like many anxieties, the central problematic behaviour is avoidance. Anxiety itself is an adaptive trait to protect us from possible harms. Our past experiences teach us about dangers, and we do everything in our power to avoid them.
Anxiety helps us perceive future threats and avoid them, an adaptive trait often misapplied in our modern world.
We often feel anxious about things that can’t actually harm us, and the avoidance that occurs because of the anxiety can, ironically, often lead to the bad outcome we originally feared.
In the case of maths anxiety, the fear of failure, or public embarrassment due to getting a question wrong, is self-fulfilled by the avoidance of maths learning situations. Students avoid maths by ‘turning off’ in class, ignoring their teacher, avoiding homework, or even truanting. The natural outcome of avoiding learning maths is to weaken their ability and miss out on learning new content, furthering their original problem and reinforcing their own beliefs in their lack of mathematical ability. The anxiety associated with maths increases. Maths anxiety is a crippling, cyclic, self-fulfilling prophecy
So, what can you we about it? If you, your child or your students are suffering from maths anxiety, how can we break that cycle of negative self-belief, which leads to poor performance, in turn reinforcing the negative self-beliefs and associated anxiety?
Stop it at the start
Of course, in an ideal world we would aim to prevent children from developing maths anxiety in the first place. For this to occur, maths education from an early age should be fun, applicable to real life, and full of encouragement of successes – avoiding negative criticism. Often the ‘absolute wrongness’ of a big red cross on a maths question feels so serious and permanent. Children should be encouraged that it’s ok to make mistakes and that they should focus on what they got right. Getting a question wrong in maths doesn’t mean you can’t do it, just that you haven’t mastered that specific skill YET.
This line of thinking stems from ‘growth mindset’ education. Read more.
Un-learn permanency beliefs
Central to maths anxiety is a permanency belief; that is, a belief that your ability to do mathematics is innate, it is part of who you are and a permanent quality you possess. And its no wonder some students can feel that way; as a society we often push this belief. How often have you heard; “I’m just not a maths person”, “It’s in my genes”, “My brain just doesn’t work in a maths way”? This is the very thinking that leads to beliefs in permanency of ability.
If you believe maths ability is genetic, innate, or a part of who you are, then of course you will believe that no amount of hard work will change your ability.
Change your language, and the way you think about maths. Encourage your children to do the same. Break free from the belief that your ability is innate, or a permanent part of you.
Instead of, “I’m just not a maths person”, how about, “I have struggled with maths in the past”. If you hear your child say “I just don’t have the brain for maths” encourage them to say, “I don’t know how to do certain maths problems yet”. If we allow for the possibility that mathematical skill can be acquired with hard work and good instruction, we allow for learning to occur. Which brings us to;
Provide access to success
Mathematical ability is a learnt skill that can be acquired. Often what is missing is a learning environment where children can experience success and feel self-efficacious. Self-efficacy is the belief in your own ability in a certain area, and building this belief through success is central to breaking down maths anxiety and building maths ability.
All maths skills are learnt through a series of progressive steps, students can progress through their mathematical education if those steps are presented in order, with enough time and revision to allow the student to master each skill.
This is an effect well researched in psychology. Children (and adults for that matter) can learn if they are given access to content that adequately challenges them without overwhelming them, allowing them to experience success. This experience builds self-efficacy and the belief that you can do maths. This is the great challenge of teaching maths, especially in a class of 30 where every student is learning at a different rate and in different styles. Teachers need to provide content carefully titrated to a student’s ability to allow them to experience success rather than constant failure.
This is where a tutor can be of great benefit. Working one on one with a student, a tutor can carefully assess their ability and provide content that is appropriate and achievable. Once the child starts to experience success, they will build self-efficacy, and this can launch them forward into future successes.
You can replace the negative self-belief cycle with a positive one.
Adopt a growth mindset, it is possible to learn!
Change your language around ability – maths ability is not innate.
During the past month, there has been a media focus on the drop in Literacy and Numeracy standards in Australian compared to the global community. To arrive at a reason for this phenomenon would be too broad to address in this short article except to say that we either don’t have a rigorous enough curriculum or students are just not being taught within their own learning styles for success in the changing climate of 21st century educational needs.
It does beg the question as to what the education community as a whole needs to do to return our Aussie system to its former glory of being consistently in the top eight on the world stage in all learning areas until very recent times. To arrive at solutions often means looking back and analysing the way we deliver education to our students. Do we truly whet their imaginations to know how to be critically thinking “learners” or are we simply in a state of flux where no one seems to know the way forward in a world where the goal posts are shifting as I write.
Sir Ken Robinson image credit: https://blog.simonassociates.net
It was delivered 18 years ago and at the time when I thought he had really nailed the problem. However accurate I feel he was, and still is, we just didn’t heed his advice and continue to miss the mark. This was reinforced by a more recent video by Prince Ea https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dqTTojTija8
Prince Ea rocks in his opinions on a variety of topics but what struck me was that this young man, from a different time and background saw exactly what Sir Ken Sir 18 years ago. Yet “the system” continues to haggle with the idea of change and how to make it relevant to our children. They are lost between the old formal way of learning and struggling to keep pace with how to implement changes that would seriously challenge the status quo as we know it. Innovations such as open classrooms, a return to project based learning and injections of funding into school based reading programs demonstrate the intention to find solutions, but are we missing the mark?
Why am I bringing this to the attention of our readers? Well I tend to agree with both Sir Ken and Prince Ea. I am always trying to work on making education relevant to students and to ensure we have a diverse range of tutors to teach them. I know it is am imperative to give our children opportunities to reach their potential in a world that is ever changing. The sameness of the last century is just not reaching the mark!
Although the luxury of my stance as a tutoring business cannot be emulated in a busy classroom, we can really benefit from the wisdom of Sir Ken and Prince Ea – that time has stood still in the broader education arena for far too long and it is time to change the way we deliver education as a nation for the sake of our children and the future of our world.
Increasingly, Australian schools are taking positive steps towards making language lessons a compulsory part of the syllabus. Many primary and high school students now learn Italian, French or Japanese, among other languages. But languages classes aren’t just a ‘fun alternative’ to get students trying something new. They’re a very real way of benefitting growth and learning skills.
Since the beginning of the year, Western Australia introduced language classes for all Year 3 students throughout the state.
“Exactly what language is up to individual schools to determine, but the School Curriculum and Standards Authority has developed syllabuses for the six most popular choices — Chinese, Japanese, Indonesian, French, German and Italian.
If schools decide to go it alone and teach a different language — such as Arabic, Hebrew, Korean, or an Aboriginal language — they will be able to use an alternative curriculum approved by the authority.” (Language classes compulsory for Year 3 students in all WA schools from 2018, November 2017, ABC).
Such classes are also integral to helping students negotiate an increasingly multicultural Australia, and giving them a competitive edge for future careers as employers increasingly value bilingual skills in their new employees.
Do you know someone wanting to learn a second language?
We’ve compiled a checklist to help them decide which language to choose.
Over 70% of Australians today have family born overseas. You might think about learning a language that strengthens your relationship and knowledge with your cultural background, if you can’t already read and write in your family’s ethnic language. Alternatively, you might want to branch out and experience a new or exotic culture, such as the language spoken in a country you might want to travel to.
Usefulness in School or a Workplace
Professional environments increasingly require additional language skills for productivity. Conduct some research – if you’re a student, you might want to learn a language which you will excel in during HSC exams. If you’re in a workplace, your business might have ties with another country, so learning a certain language will benefit your communication.
If you’re already bilingual, you may consider learning yet another language! This can be a fun hobby that is genuinely beneficial to your quality of life. Of course, language tutors are also great resources, who can guide you through the process supportively, sharing
It is a well-known fact that as social beings, humans, especially children, learn from those they interact with closely on a daily basis. Children spend an average of 30 hours a week in school, and with other commitments like work, sporting activities and social activities, it is reported that many families now spend less than 40 minutes a day together! (The Digital Hub, 2016)
With the busyness of contemporary lifestyles, it is more important than ever that the role models in students’ lives are positive ones, demonstrating outstanding values, great study ethics, and everything that lies between.
Tutors, in the very privileged role of being educators who spend time one-on-one with their students, need to be the right match. This is the reason tutor-student matching is taken so seriously at Nepean Tutoring.
From the moment you pick up the phone, you may be wondering what the process is behind the scenes as your student’s tutor is arranged. While all of our tutors here at Nepean Tutoring are skilled and experienced, we consider the little things that make every lesson a success:
Location – where is your student based? Are there local tutors who provide the service your student needs? (Yes! We have tutors throughout Nepean and surrounding regions).
Age and experience – what year level is your student in, and what experiences would they most benefit from in a tutor?
Special considerations – does your student hate a certain subject? Or do they struggle with particular areas of school work, like reading? Can we find a tutor who is passionate and really experienced in those areas to motivate your student? (Yes, we can!)
Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid. – Albert Einstein
When a tutor and student – or mentor and mentee – sit together to work on anything, be it English or Geography, an exchange of knowledge, values and study ethic goes on. To have maximum potential, and make for a more engaging and memorable learning experience, there needs to be some degree of chemistry. We’ve all had those teachers who just aren’t interesting. Or that head teacher with years of experience who natters on at a level, speed and tone that their young students just do not relate to…
“Students shouldn’t be sharing these things,” the teacher said. “What things?” A student asked. “The things that if you have them, you want to share them. But if you share them, you don’t have them.” The student looks confused. “What’s that?” She asks her teacher. “It’s a secret!” The teacher replies.
Learning essays or Pythagoras’ theorem doesn’t have to be a riddle. It is the role of a personalised tutor to turn abstract theories into accessible content grounded in students’ real-world experiences. Otherwise, students are alienated by unnecessarily complex explanations. As Albert Eistein once said, ‘Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid.’ Having a tutor who relates to a student’s experiences and individual personality makes all the difference.
Friends are the family you choose, and so are tutors!
There has been a great deal of discussion in 21st century education, especially in the past few years, about the importance of resilience for success in school. Glazed-eyed students study their fingernails for many an hour in Life Skills lessons in junior high school, and later attend – often with sighs – a variety of seminars focused on building their skills to ‘bounce back’ from the pressures of senior high school and university. But despite this, feedback from teachers and schools continues to portray the reality that students are not coping well with the stress, deadlines and steep learning curves now associated with study, as we move through the Information Age (and beyond). According to Youth Beyond Blue, “One in fourteen young Australians (6.9%) aged 4-17 experienced an anxiety disorder in 2015. This is equivalent to approximately 278,000 young people.”
Australian higher education rates have also been falling. According to studies within the last couple of years, a quarter of students fail to complete their Year 12 certificate, and as per the Sydney Morning Herald’s 2016 report, ‘NSW Universities: Decade of drop-outs prompts warning from Simon Birmingham’, “Up to one in five students now drop out of university, according to figures released by the federal Department of Education.”
But is dropping out of school the positive ‘way out’ to avoid stressful situations that will most likely reappear in the workplace? Is it the only option?
These are some alarming statistics. Perhaps somewhere between learning about resilience and practicing resilience, students are finding themselves overwhelmed by challenges and a lack of real skills and support to begin ‘just doing it’. So, how can modern students practice resilience?
Firstly, what does this concept mean? A Harvard study defines resilience as being, ‘…the ability to recover from setbacks, adapt well to change, and keep going in the face of adversity.’
This could not be more important for our students today. Let’s break this down into practical strategies rather than sticking to definitions and conceptual discussion.
1. Recovering from setbacks Learning is an experience. A commonly heard phrase in classrooms and ad campaigns today is: ‘you are not a mark or a number’. This is true, and it is vital that students believe and understand this. Teachers, tutors and markers know that students are real people on a learning journey, bringing with them valuable, unique ideas and approaches. These teachers, tutors and markers are there to assist each student with their educational experience, but sometimes, it comes down to the individual effort and dedication of students to accept this help, learn from feedback and seek advice from available resources. One bad mark, or one exam that did not go to plan, can mean failure – or growth. If students build up a support network of family, friends, teachers or tutors and resources to consult when things don’t go to plan, failures can quickly be converted into another step forward on their learning journey.
2. Adapt well to change Gone are the days when students competed to get into one stable job at the entry-level of their career path and stayed on that path until retirement. Now, career-switching is common and education and work settings are constantly undergoing change. There is also flexibility associated with this – new hours of work, a variety of qualifications that will get you where you want to go. Exams are moving from paper to laptop screens, as marking already has.
Resilience is adapting to change. A well-known proverb states, “When you can’t change the direction of the wind, adjust your sails.” If a study technique didn’t work this time around, students should change the way they study for their next exam and utilise those around them for advice – teachers and tutors can suggest new approaches, such as flashcards, handwriting notes, or voice recording important themes and concepts. If a subject at school isn’t enjoyable, students should attempt to figure out why, and address their specific dissatisfactions, rather than resorting too rashly to dropping out of the subject, or school altogether.
3. Keep going Most importantly, keep going! The best way to do this is to set goals. In a modern world with an overwhelming amount of information and demand for splitting one’s attention between hundreds of tasks each week, setting SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely) goals to break down larger tasks and projects can provide a way of coping with challenges. At Nepean Tutoring, our consistent message to our students is not to give up, and goal-setting decreases the lack of motivation or feeling of “but I can’t do it!” that often crops up when things get too busy or stressful.
Just do it. If it fails, try and try again…differently each time.