It is clear that psychological investigation has an important role to play in maths education. It is also a good example of how an interdisciplinary approach can be highly effective, involving educational practitioners and a range of sub-disciplines of psychology. Decades of research has taught us a lot, particularly in the context of mathematical cognition and emotional responses to maths. Here I touch on some of the things research has taught us about maths anxiety, along with suggestions for next steps.

__Maths as a
stressor__

Many people enjoy maths. However, for many, it
incites a negative emotional response. This is why, for a long time,
researchers of the human stress response have used pressurised mental
arithmetic tasks as a way of stressing people out. Ironically, timed,
socially evaluative maths testing is commonplace in classrooms. Anecdotally
(and from some qualitative research), many adults recount experiences they
had as children involving maths teachers “putting them on the
spot” or humiliating them for incorrect responses. Interestingly, such
recollections will often fulfil the criteria for what cognitive psychologists
call “flashbulb memories”. Recent research has involved
investigating maths anxiety in children who have been in formal education for
only a short time (e.g. Petronzi
et al. 2018). Sadly, through explicit scoring and timing systems, being
good at maths soon becomes associated with how fast one is at it; a child may
have very low maths self-efficacy because they are surrounded by peers who
happen to be very quick, ignoring the fact that a whole class might be quite
fast at mathematical problem solving and some variation is a) to be expected,
b) too much importance is attached to completing maths problems quickly.
Thus, from a young age, children self-identify a hierarchical structure
within their class. This paves the way for negative maths experiences.
Arguably, assessment-heavy maths education systems are in need of an overhaul
and psychological research will be integral to
this.

__Cognition and emotion__

Maths anxiety
is a good example of the coming-together of cognition and emotion. Much of
the experimental or quasi-experimental work that has taken place has been
grounded in theoretical models of working memory and attentional processes.
However, little research has explicitly attempted to study the underlying
mechanisms related to these models. For example, only a handful of studies
have researched intrusive thoughts experience during mathematical problem
solving (e.g. Hunt
et al. 2014). Whilst methodologically tricky, this is feasible and it
would be useful to understand the exact ways such thoughts operate.
Similarly, more research should make use of objective measures of attention,
e.g. eye-tracking technology, to assess the relevance of specific attentional
processes in relation to maths anxiety and visually presented stimuli
(maths problems, timers, instructions, etc), e.g. heightened vigilance,
inhibition, sustained attention, shifting, and
disengagement.

__Meta-cognition__

Recent
studies have highlighted the relevance of meta-cognition in relation to maths
anxiety, particularly in the context of performance. Meta-cognition can be
thought of as “thinking about thinking” (Flavell, 1979) and
relates to the processes by which learners plan, monitor, evaluate and change
learning behaviours in accordance with a given task (Chauhan & Singh,
2014). Morsanyi
et al (2019) provide an excellent discussion of maths anxiety and
meta-cognitive processes in which they emphasise the impact of maths anxiety
on learners’ judgements and decision-making on numerical reasoning and
problem-solving tasks. This incorporates consideration of learners’
confidence and cognitive effort, which relates nicely to the concept of
avoidance – something that is often associated with maths anxiety
(e.g. Choe et
al. 2019). The idea of maths anxiety being closely tied to effort was
discussed by Skemp in 1971, in which he argued that if a student fails to
find the correct solution to a maths problem, an anxious response may
initiate greater effort to find the right solution. This, however, can be
self-defeating, making understanding the solution even more problematic, thus
creating a vicious circle. There is much scope to explore these ideas further
and I would recommend the inclusion of measures of student motivation, given
this has been shown to interact with maths anxiety to predict performance
(Wang et al.
2015).

__Observational approaches__

Much
applied research in maths education tends to be self-report based, which is
great in terms of acquiring large amounts of data and identifying patterns.
However, it sometimes misses more nuanced verbal and behavioural
interactions. There is a small body of research that highlights the relevance
of studying specific interactions between children and adults during maths
learning, suggesting possible “emotional contagion”, whereby
children model parents’ negative expressed emotion, e.g. frustration
and anger (e.g. Else-Quest
et al. 2008). With many parents finding it stressful when it comes to the
home numeracy environment, e.g. helping with maths homework, parent-child
interaction is something that needs to be explored further. Relatedly, some
have argued that (perceived) teacher support is an important predictor of
maths anxiety (e.g. Sultan
et al. 2015). Research would benefit from observational and longitudinal
approaches to investigate this further.

__Population
considerations__

The most well-known studies into maths anxiety
and attitudes have tended to be based in Europe or the U.S. However, a wealth
of research has shown they are many similarities and differences in research
findings between developed and developing nations. Where there are
similarities between culturally (and socio-economically) different countries,
e.g. in maths anxiety, we should not assume the same underlying predictive
mechanisms are at play. Further research is required to consider the role of
cultural norms and variations in factors such as motivation to predict
maths-based behavioural and psychological outcomes. In populations that are
culturally and ethnically diverse, e.g. the UK, such factors are certainly
understudied. I am currently leading a multi-country survey-based study of
Year 11 pupils and we are in need of more UK secondary schools, so please get
in touch if you would like to discuss how to get
involved.

__Teachers__

Most teacher training
programmes fail to include a focus on relevant psychological features of
maths education. For example, only minimal attention has been paid to the
anxiety teachers experience when teaching maths. Some research has
highlighted the relevance of maths anxiety in teachers, e.g. contributing to
teachers’ motivation to support children (e.g. Trujillo
& Hadfield, 1999), but also indirect links to poorer student
performance as a result of stereotype threat
(Beilock et al.
2010). It is important to highlight the subtle difference between maths
anxiety on the one hand and anxiety towards teaching maths on the other:
whilst related, a high score on one does not necessarily mean a high score on
the other. For instance, one aspect of maths teaching anxiety is the worry
associated with student maths outcomes (which may be related to external
pressures placed on teachers)
(Hunt &
Sari, 2019). Research should focus on the factors that may cause,
exacerbate, or reduce maths anxiety in teachers, encouraging greater
interdisciplinary working between psychologists and those involved in teacher
training.

__Interventions__

Researchers have
tested several innovative strategies to help reduce maths anxiety (e.g. Brunyé
et al. 2013; Park et
al. 2014; Jamieson
et al. 2016). However, there is scope to explore many more and I would
urge researchers to engage more with schools and other educational
institutions. Engagement with key stakeholders in the early stages enables a
more partnership-based approach; educators gain insight into the rigours of
the academics’ approach, whereas academics develop an appreciation of a
fuller range of practical considerations and suitability of various designs
and measures. Some suggestions for developing and testing targeted maths
anxiety interventions include those that focus on: feedback (e.g. nature of
feedback; confidence-based marking); instruction (e.g. pre-test instructions
that induce a challenge rather than threat response); cross-subject learning
(e.g. maths and physical activity); combined strategies(e.g. the ‘Maths
and Me’ workbook approach I am currently working on with Kingsmead
Pupil Referral Unit, Derby). That said, I would encourage educators to
propose areas and groups that they believe should be
targeted.

Thomas Hunt is an Associate Professor in Psychology at the University of Derby and leads the Mathematics Anxiety Research Group www.marg.wp.derby.ac.uk