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Conquering an Apprehension of Maths. You Can do it!


Remember filing into your next lesson at school – maths! ‘Have you done your homework?’ someone would ask– ‘could you do it?’.

For some students, these questions about maths fill them with dread, but subjects such as history or geography do not seem to get the same reaction, why not? What is it about maths that can lead some students to say ’I just can’t do maths’ or ‘I am no good at maths’?

If you have ever felt this way, then you are not alone. Many people suffer from such a feeling. It is called ‘Maths Anxiety’. It has been defined by the Nuffield Foundation ‘as a debilitating emotional reaction to maths’ and is a very real and much recognised condition. Sian Beilock, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago said, ‘for someone who has maths anxiety, the anticipation of doing maths prompts a similar brain reaction as when they experience pain – say, burning one’s hand on a hot stove’.

But where do these feelings come from? Psychologists believe they are most likely to be related to past experience. Perhaps, a negative comment by a former teacher; or a fear of ‘getting it wrong’ in front of peers. Maths is a spiralling curriculum. If the topic was not fully understood the first time, it can make later progression difficult. Once a student starts to have difficulty, this can lead to avoidance; reduced practice and finally poor performance. And so, the vicious cycle begins - doing poorly at maths can make you anxious, and being anxious can reduce maths performance.

But most importantly, maths anxiety is not usually the result of a lack of ability!

How can we help students to conquer this apprehension?

  • Confidence, Confidence, Confidence. There is a tendency to believe with maths that you either have ability or you don’t. Students need to understand that this is not the case and that their skills and abilities are the result of hard work, study and practice. If you practice maths you will most definitely improve. Once students see an improvement their confidence will grow.

  • Try, Try, Try. It is essential to encourage students not to be afraid of their mistakes. Students must be taught to value their mistakes. It is by making mistakes that we learn. ‘It’s only those who do nothing, that make no mistakes.’ (Joseph Conrad 1896). In maths, it is essential to go back over your work, to see what went wrong and learn how to reach the correct solution next time. By doing so, students can gradually build their knowledge one step at a time. 

  • Practice, Practice, Practice. This is so important. It will lead to improved performance and confidence will follow.

  • Learn the Basics – many higher-level maths topics depend on a knowledge and understanding of more basic maths facts. E.g. students should learn their times tables – being able to recall facts will increase confidence and allow students to answer questions more quickly.

  • The Maths Teacher is Key. If the teacher is positive and enjoys maths this can be instrumental in encouraging students to explore and learn. Ideally students need a teacher who has a love of maths, instilling positivity about the subject. We all remember the teachers who made lessons enjoyable, imaginative, innovative. Quite often it is these subjects that adults later say they enjoyed most at school.  If this is not happening in school, it may be time to consider getting outside help. Positive feedback and encouragement from a teacher is powerful in empowering students to keep trying.

  • Believe that you can do it.  Dr. Carol Dweck, Professor of Psychology at Stanford University says that having a growth mind set ‘drives motivation and achievement’. ‘When students believe they can get smarter, they understand that effort makes them stronger. Therefore, they put in extra time and effort, and that leads to higher achievement.’

Improvement in maths is most certainly achievable! Students need to believe in themselves and with support, effort and the right guidance anything is possible.


By Colette Lurshay Head of CAL Mathematics.                                                              11 July 2017

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