Treating Maths Anxiety: Un-learning Beliefs and Building Self-efficacy

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.

Treating Math Anxiety

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

Stop from the startOf 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.

Unlearn

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.
  • Provide opportunities for success.

Written by Anne Gwilliam

3 NAPLAN Myths Busted: Demystifying Common Misconceptions About the NAPLAN Test

NAPLANJust hearing the word ‘NAPLAN’ is enough to raise anyone’s blood pressure; images of stressed out kids, parents and teachers spring to mind. Since 2008 the NAPLAN tests have been measuring the reading, writing, literacy and numeracy skills of Australian children, and for hardly a moment without controversy. The constant media attention and politicization of the yearly NAPLAN results can lead to confusion and some misunderstandings about what these results really mean, both for individual students and across the board for Australia.

We have talked about the issues with standardised educational practises before, NAPLAN epitomises this problem.

But for now, let us demystify and debunk 3 common myths about NAPLAN, as it stands in 2018.

MYTH 1. ‘My child did not meet the national minimum standards for year 9 NAPLAN in some areas, so they will not be able to graduate with a HSC.

Myth 2 NAPLANNot anymore. The controversial move in 2016 to prevent students graduating with a HSC if they had not achieved the national minimum standards in their year 9 NAPLAN test has been revoked as of February this year. This move came after an outcry from parents and teachers who found that this had put unnecessary pressure on students at a young and vulnerable age and made the focus of education about passing tests rather than teaching skills and building up strong learners; an unfortunate downside of standardised testing.

Disentangling NAPLAN from the HSC removes that extra stress of potential long-term impacts of the NAPLAN results.

MYTH 2. ‘The national average NAPLAN results keep getting worse and worse, Australian kids are getting dumber.’

This year’s national average NAPLAN results did not significantly differ from 2017 in any field. Over the past decade of testing the results have shown some small improvements in numeracy, spelling, grammar and punctuation, and reading. The only area of concern is writing, where there was a decrease in ability across the board in most states and year groups between 2008-2017. The good news is that in 2018, the number of students meeting national minimal standard requirements for writing has not changed.

Table 2-1 Table 2-2

Examples of the number of students meeting national minimum requirements between 2008-2017, and 2017-2018 (Image from ACARA). The black dot shows no change, clear arrows represent a small increase or decrease in numbers. Data is per state. For more information check out http://reports.acara.edu.au/NAP/TimeSeries

However, results did not significantly improve in the past year either (pictured above, the black squares represent no change) The improvements across the previous decade of testing have been small, which begs the question; for all the added time, money and stress expended in the pursuit of better NAPLAN results, why haven’t we seen massive improvements in performance across the board?

NAPLAN tests are primarily diagnostic tools for teachers, schools and the education department to identify areas of weakness, and they should be viewed as just that. It would be negligent to never check in on the standards of education in Australia, but the huge focus placed on the NAPLAN tests is not making the difference in improving outcomes that would justify the pressure placed on students, and the time and money focused on this one aspect of their education.

MYTH 3. ‘NAPLAN results are the best demonstration of my child’s progress and the best predictor of their future success at school.’

NAPLAN Myth 3There are so many factors that can affect a child’s outcome in an individual test. It could simply mean your child had a bad day on the day of testing! They may have been overcome by test anxiety, such that they performed significantly below their ability level; a common response to the mounting pressure placed on students by standardised testing.

Assessing your child’s progress should be done through a combination of test results, reports and in one-on-one consultation with teachers. Standardised tests alone cannot reveal the unique abilities of every child, they simply aren’t designed to do so.

NAPLAN ResultsNAPLAN results may help identify areas your child may need more support in. Our tutors are there to help fill those gaps that may have been identified. They can also help mentor your child in exam taking preparation and teach them how to reduce test anxiety. Most importantly however, we aim to encourage each child’s strengths and empower them as individual learners, teaching them thinking and problem-solving skills to be able to overcome many challenges. And that’s an outcome you simply can’t measure in a standardised test alone.

This article was written by Anne Gwilliam, one of our tutors. 

How Learning a Second Language Benefits Students’ Development and Education

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.

As discussed in many research publications and news reports, learning another language assists students with multitasking, processing information in more complex ways and, of course, in expanding their social and cultural understanding. More information about the benefits of bilingualism to physiology can be found here: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/educationopinion/10126883/Why-learn-a-foreign-language-Benefits-of-bilingualism.html

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.

Second LanguageIf 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.

Cultural significance

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.

Enjoyment

Make sure you enjoy the language you’re learning! Learning a language should not be a rushed or stressful process. Go at your own pace. Useful apps and both print and electronic resources can assist you. Many can be borrowed from your local library, and other free resources are listed here: https://www.thebalance.com/the-7-best-free-language-learning-apps-1357060 and here: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/fodors/7-outstanding-language-le_b_6431448.html. Above all, have fun!

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 ­

A Differentiated Curriculum: Same Same…but Different?

Why tutoring can give students equal opportunities to learn

A differentiated curriculum is a learning program that, ideally, meets the academic needs and interests of every student. This means that all the teaching approaches outlined in the curriculum are flexible, so that the content being taught is digestible and refreshingly challenging for each individual child. In a class of twenty or thirty students, who will undoubtedly possess slightly different needs, interests and skills from each other, an effective differentiated program is a challenge for teachers to implement. Nonetheless, experienced teachers, including educators at the new NSW Education Standards Authority (NESA, formerly BOSTES), know that such an individualised curriculum is necessary if all students are to meet their full potential. Susan Winebrenner, an experienced education consultant of the Education Consulting Services in the US, has put forward a compelling argument for differentiated learning, “Equality means giving everyone equal opportunities to learn, not teaching everyone in exactly the same way.

Differentiated CurriculumNESA agrees, and differentiated programming of lessons is integrated within the current K-10 Syllabus Framework. The ability of proficient teachers to individualise and create greater flexibility in lesson plans is also a clear requirement of the NSW Proficient Teacher Evidence Guide (BOSTES, published June 2014), in which the first standard discussed is a knowledge of students and their diverse learning processes. For example, some students may be visual learners who prefer teacher demonstrations, and some students may be more autonomous when given a written list of instructions.

Unfortunately, efforts towards establishing curriculum differentiation in schools often falls short. Within NESA guidelines, such programming is a guide, rather than a requirement whose success can be evaluated by students and their families. In reality, curriculum differentiation may go little further than a few sentences in a school’s teaching/learning policy handbook, or informal extension programs where gifted students meet once or twice a term to work on self-guided projects. Not all schools offer the supported learning or acceleration programs that many students need. And what about HSC students in Year 11 and 12, whose teachers already have their hands full with weekly marking and feedback, and a strict limit on the length of time they can spend on one learning outcome?

Despite schools’ best intentions, classroom sizes and a lack of support materials can mean some students (whether they require additional learning help, would like to fill a few gaps in their knowledge, or are gifted students needing a challenge in class) simply do not receive an equal opportunity to learn.

So how can tutoring provide the flexible learning opportunities often lacking in many classrooms?

NESA recommends these following methods for differentiating students’ learning programs (Differentiated Programming, NSW Education Standards Authority, NSW Government, 2014):

  • tiered and levelled activities
  • interest centres
  • problem-solving and challenge-based learning opportunities
  • open-ended questioning
  • collaborative and individual learning
  • student choice
  • teacher/student dialogue around learning activities

Tutors, such as those on our team at Nepean Tutoring, are highly experienced in providing individualised, focused learning opportunities. In a tutoring setting, students have the opportunity to learn one-on-one, or in a small group. Programs are tailored to their own specific needs and are free from the distractions and competing requirements of other students in a large classroom. Furthermore, our tutors can fill those gaps in knowledge, support students to learn classroom content at their own pace, and find an approach that allows each student to be challenged and grow from their learning experience, without feeling overwhelmed. This facilitates student/tutor discussion and encourages learners to generate their own ideas and questions about content, an important learning process that leads lead to further investigation – that is, further learning. At all times, our tutors ensure students’ needs and interests are at the centre of learning opportunities.

While classroom learning often assumes that students are the same, the individual nature of tutoring recognises that this is a myth. Difference should be valued, and used as a means to help students grow.

Learning to Play and Playing to Learn

Why Time for Fun and Games is Essential for Early Childhood Education

The early years of childhood, specifically those before and during kindergarten, are vital years for growing minds. It is during these years that children first learn how to perceive the world around them, build relationships with others (such as preschool friends) and begin the foundational process of learning problem-solving and analytical skills. For the awe-inspiring curiosity and creativity of young children, into whose early development much research has been undertaken, every marker stain and scattering of building blocks tells a story of a learning journey. For parents, a common question may arise as little ones prepare for their first year of school – what is an appropriate balance between play and more traditional learning activities, like homework and reading?

The short answer is that play is just as important as learning. In fact, learning through play is a process of unparalleled value for the development of childhood cognition. Australian educational institutions have recently put considerable efforts towards embracing a play-based learning approach.

The Early Years Learning Framework was implemented in 2009 as a national response to scientific and social research into the value of play in the classroom. According to the Child Development Institute of California, USA there are different types of play:

“Social Play: By interacting with others in play settings, children learn social rules such as give and take, reciprocity, cooperation…and…learn to use moral reasoning to develop a mature sense of values.

Constructive Play: Constructive play is when children manipulate their environment to create things. This…allows children to experiment with objects; find out combinations that work and don’t work…Children who are comfortable manipulating objects and materials also become good at manipulating words, ideas and concepts.

Fantasy Play: Children learn to…try out new roles and possible situations…to experiment with language and emotions. In addition, children develop flexible thinking; learn to create beyond the here and now…In an ever-more technological society, lots of practice with all forms of abstraction – time, place, amount, symbols, words, and ideas – is essential.”

The evidence in support of the cognitive benefits of play-based learning is overwhelming. Early Childhood Australia describes this, ‘it is believed that play shapes the structural design of the brain…secure attachments and stimulation are significant aspects of brain development; play provides active exploration that assists in building and strengthening brain pathways… [increasing]…flexibility and improved potential for learning later in life,’ (‘Why Play-Based Learning?2009-2013, Early Childhood Australia), adding that, ‘Worksheets and other ‘formal’ teaching strategies tend to make learning…for many children…more difficult.’ For these reasons, it is important that early childhood educators learn to create learning environments that support physical, mental and social play and experimentation.

The real question is…how is this done?

Modern educators must be equipped to ensure a holistic approach; the layout of classroom furniture, the availability of resources, and the attitudes of tutors and teachers themselves can promote opportunities for children to find the fun in learning. Integrating time for creative, musical or performance activities and lots of discussion into lessons creates a basis – interactive toys, from games to dolls and building materials – support this process. When planning lessons, tutors and teachers should perhaps keep in mind the following model of the ‘spiralled’ learning process of young children as described by Mitchel Resnick from MIT’s Media Lab, ‘children imagine what they want to do, create a project based on their ideas, play with their creations, share their ideas and creations with others, reflect on their experiences – all of which leads them to imagine new ideas and new projects.’ (‘All I Really Need to Know (About Creative Thinking) I Learned (By Studying How Children Learn) in Kindergarten’ Mitchel Resnick, Creativity & Cognition conference, 2007).