Guest Blog: Understanding Maths Anxiety

4 May 2018

Recently, our Maths Professional Learning Community focused on recommendation 5 of the EEF’s Improving Maths KS2 and KS3 Guidance Report about developing pupils’ independence and motivation. We explored some interesting content around ‘Maths Anxiety’ with a really great summary of the evidence from Cambridge Maths. We reflected that maybe being proficient learners, possessing the skills which had allowed us to progress towards our degrees and enter the teaching profession, didn’t lend us with the best starting point for understanding the experiences of our struggling learners. So when Dr Dominic Petronzi’s email came through about a new research project he is recruiting for looking into maths anxiety, it piqued my interest. Here he explains his interest in the area and the scope of his new research project.

I clearly remember when the light bulb switched on in my mind.  I was sat in a lecture as an undergraduate student in a module that taught a variety of topics on a weekly basis, and one of these was about maths anxiety.  The more I listened, the more I could fit my own experiences to the research findings.

During my early primary school years, I too experienced negative feelings towards maths and recall a sense of dread and fear when working with numbers during maths lessons.  It seemed an inexplicable and uncontrollable emotional response and a range of factors had contributed towards this.  However, as a child and even into my adult years, I had always believed that I simply had a performance deficit, yet after the maths anxiety lecture, it became apparent that I had fallen foul of my own negative emotional responses.  This had interfered with my cognitive performance.  Essentially, my maths anxiety was an emotional issue.

Following this point, I endeavoured to explore whether other children in early education were experiencing similar feelings towards maths that hindered their participation and performance.  I also aimed to understand what children consider as contributing to either more positive or negative maths attitudes.  I therefore prepared a small piece of research for my final year project as an undergraduate student.  My initial background research into the area of maths anxiety had revealed that very little research had focussed on younger children’s maths attitudes, with an obvious focus on adult populations.  The research I was aiming to conduct could therefore provide a valuable contribution to the area.  The first piece of research I completed provided UK children (aged 4-7 years) with an opportunity to discuss their feelings towards maths and provided very interesting findings. The research suggested that maths anxiety was influencing achievement between the ages of four and seven and related to multiple factors and experiences.

The findings of this research inspired me to progress the research as part of a PhD in Psychology.  This provided me with the platform to carry out further research in the area and to make a positive contribution.  Through being in an academic position, I adopted a philosophical approach that centred on positively contributing to children’s lives by aiming to improve the educational experiences of those at risk of maths anxiety.  At the time of commencing my doctorate, I began working as a Higher Level Teaching Assistant and subsequently spent a number of years working with children from reception (age 3-4) to year eleven (age 16) and with complex difficulties.  Through this experience, I learnt that children from as young as reception can have thoughts and feelings on many aspects of school and life, and are capable of providing insightful information.  I also encountered negative and self-critical discussions and statements in maths lessons, as well as witnessing attempts to get away from maths work.  This further encouraged me to pursue the research area of maths anxiety.

A main outcome of my doctorate research was a ‘Numeracy Apprehension Scale’ that could be used within UK primary schools to support the identification of children who may be at risk of maths anxiety, enabling early intervention to be provided.  The Numeracy Apprehension Scale was shown to be valid and reliable when children responded to the questions.  Adding to this, the scale correlated with children’s maths performance, demonstrating that if a child scored higher for maths anxiety, their maths performance reflected this.  The research had therefore been valuable and made a useful contribution to the area of maths anxiety, particularly from a UK perspective.

It is for this reason that we are pursuing further research in this area, with a focus on strategies that can promote more positive attitudes in maths. If you are interested in being part of the programme, please take a look at the link here.


Dominic Petronzi, BSc. (Hons), MRes, PhD, FHEA
Lecturer in Psychology
University of Derby
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M: +44 (0)1332 597990



Posted on 4 May 2018
Posted in: Blog

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