Experts say confidence is key to fighting ‘mathemaphobia’.

Mathematics is critical for a STEM-capable workforce and vital for Australia’s current and future productivity, but it is hard to get kids on board.

Maths anxiety, or ‘mathemaphobia’, is the sense of fear, worry and nervousness that students may experience when participating in mathematical tasks. Around a third of Australian secondary students report feeling tense, nervous or helpless when doing maths, and this reaction is influencing their decisions to study maths.

new study by the University of South Australia in collaboration with the Australian Council for Educational Research has explored the impact of anxiety on learning maths.

It finds that boosting student confidence is pivotal to greater engagement with the subject.

“Many of us would have felt some sort of maths anxiety in the past – a sense of panic or worry, feelings of failure, or even a faster heart rate – all of which are associated with stress,” says lead researcher, Dr Florence Gabriel.

“Maths anxiety is essentially an emotional reaction, but it’s just like stress in other situations.

“When students experience maths anxiety, they’ll tend to hurry through maths questions, lose focus, or simply give up when it all seems too hard. Not surprisingly, these reactions compound and lead to poor maths achievement – and later a reluctance to engage with the subject at all.

“To break this cycle, our research shows that we need to build and grow student confidence in maths, especially before starting a new maths concept.

“This draws on the notion of self-regulated learning ­– where students have the ability to understand, track and control their own learning.

“By drawing a student’s attention to instances where they’ve previously overcome a difficult maths challenge, or to a significant maths success, we’re essentially building their confidence and belief in their own abilities, and it’s this that will start to counteract negative emotions.”

The study assessed the responses of 4,295 Australian 15-year-old students in the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA).

It focussed on the psychological factors of maths learning: motivation (the belief that maths is important and useful for their future); maths self-concept (the belief in their ability to do maths); maths anxiety (self-feelings when doing maths); perseverance (their willingness to continue to work on difficult problems); maths self-efficacy (their self-belief that they can successfully solve maths problems); and maths literacy (the ability to apply maths to the real world).

“Importantly, our research shows the domino effect that these variables have on one another,” Dr Gabriel says.

“Through structural equation modelling, our data shows that low motivation and self-concept will lead to maths anxiety, which in turn affects perseverance, self-efficacy and, ultimately, maths achievement.

“By developing a student’s ability to reflect on past successes – before maths anxiety sets in – we can break through some of the negative and emotional beliefs about maths and, hopefully, pave the way for students to accept and engage with maths in the future.”