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Identifying and supporting students with maths anxiety: opinion

Psychologist MH Ashcraft describes maths anxiety as a “feeling of tension, apprehension, or fear” that hinders a person’s performance in the subject.

It often occurs when a student struggles with learning the basic concepts of maths which can lead to them feeling overwhelmed. These feelings can compound and manifest both psychologically and physically, which in turn can make the individual feel worried or anxious about maths.

It is a challenge that must be understood in order to be overcome and it is one that has only grown in recent months, following the impact of COVID-19 on young people’s education in Australia, and across the globe.

Anxiety around maths can be seen and felt not only in classrooms but also in homes and workplaces. It is widely known as a barrier for people’s development in education, employment and broader life skills. Educators must also be aware that maths anxiety is not restricted to individuals with low mathematical ability; there are high achieving individuals who experience maths anxiety.

Supporting students to overcome maths anxiety

To overcome maths anxiety, a strong starting point is understanding where the anxiety began. Revisit the concepts or particular challenges that began to make the student feel this way and look to rebuild from that point.

Listen to what they found difficult and provide plenty of time to practise – it is essential to not rush them or move on to more advanced subjects before they are ready.

When practising, it is also crucial to make students understand that they are allowed to make mistakes. Making mistakes is a large part of the learning process and there should not be an expectation to achieve the perfect answer every time. Building a belief and willingness to try again is an important step in overcoming anxiety with this core subject.

Sometimes the way to overcome obstacles is by addressing them from a different angle. It may be the case that the style of learning is what is hindering the student’s ability in maths. Some work well in a traditional classroom environment, listening to the teacher at the front of the room explain why x=2 and which formula you should use in varying on the sum. However, for many, a more visual or personalised approach is needed.

The role of gamified learning

A classroom of peers can often create a huge amount of pressure and be intimidating for students. Students who are weaker at maths may feel too nervous to speak up and ask for help because they feel embarrassed.

Gamified learning can help alleviate this pressure by enabling them to learn and practice maths concepts in a way that doesn’t feel intimidating to them, with the worry of making an error in front of the whole class and facing potential taunts removed from the equation.

Gamified learning also encourages engagement through their competitive nature but also because of the psychology supporting this pedagogical approach. When students are competing against one another the lure of being able to win encourages them to learn the concepts and overcome the challenges, enabling them to achieve a higher score than their classmates.

This competitive element develops a willingness to persevere and helps students overcome their anxieties, whether that be about not being able to understand or complete a task.

Additionally, games are generally designed for enjoyment and to make you want to try again and come back for more; therefore, the inability to complete a task or a level is a graceful failure, the student hardly even notices they have failed because they are so focused on trying again and completing it next time.

Furthermore, children today often learn more effectively through active and immediate feedback, which allows them to remediate their approach individually. This real-time feedback is offered by gamified learning and enables students to immediately know if they are right or wrong. They are able to work at their own pace in a personalised and adaptive environment without the worry of additional classroom stresses or being embarrassed for making a mistake.

The impacts of COVID-19 on young people’s education in Australia and globally has meant that maths anxiety has become more prevalent in recent months. Therefore, it is crucial we are aware of how to identify the problem and the solutions available.

Gamified learning creates practical and viable solutions to support young people who are experiencing challenges with their maths and it is time now to ensure we are making the most of the edtech tools available to us.

Paul Carter is head of learning content at Mangahigh

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