Friday, 14 October 2016

Natalie Lamb and the uncovering of maths anxiety

Did you know maths anxiety is an actual thing? I had no idea. 85% of students are likely to have maths anxiety and I had no idea it even existed (Perry, 2004).

I was just going through potential maths and statistics courses on my University's website, trying to decide which one to attend (and thinking of many different excuses to not sign up), when I came across a one hour course on 'Maths and Statistics Anxiety'. I had never heard of this before so I read a bit more on the module description and it sounded interesting.

Spicer (2004) described the condition as "an emotion that blocks a person's reasoning abilities when confronted with a mathematical situation". And that is exactly what it is, and studies with fMRI can prove it (Young et al., 2012). The more anxious you are, the worse your working memory is working, meaning the maths is more difficult. It's very much a vicious circle situation.

I don't actually consider myself an anxious person in any way, nor does the idea of maths and stats make me outright worry at all, but something encouraged me to sign up to the course. 43% of University of Sheffield students surveyed said that they have chosen their A levels, degree, modules or job to avoid maths. I have not done any maths or stats in a number of years now. But thinking back on my years of education, I have definitely made quite a few anti-maths choices in my time. I was genuinely shocked. Perhaps I have got a touch of this maths anxiety too? It does manifests itself in different ways. There can be negative emotions or feelings (e.g. anxiety, panic, paranoia, passive behaviour and reduced confidence) but anxiety can also manifest itself in physical ways (e.g. dizziness, restlessness, stomachs ache, shaking and many more). I don't experience any of these things but, when asked, I do always say that I am rubbish at maths. 

As I'm doing a PhD in Civil Engineering and Microbiology, I thought this was something I should work on. But how can you actually overcome this vicious cycle?Well, learning about it definitely helps. Like me, with the university course, or maybe just a good google will help you out. Admitting that you have this problem or realising you're not the only one with it, helps an awful not. When you've realised it's something that you can help get better, you really need to tackle it head on and deal with it, like actually going to the dentist when you've had toothache for the past three months. It might not be something you particularly want to do, but it really could help you in future. So don't avoid the maths lessons, pick up those practise exams and start with something you find easy, then work up to the things which would have previously boggled your brain. Try writing about the anxiety, just for five minutes, before an exam, just to get your mind focused on something else. It's all about being confident in your abilities.

My next step is going to be actually enrolling on some Statistics courses, rather than procrastinating about it. I also intend to be a lot more watchful of my choices, to make sure I'm not just choosing a specific training course because of a lack of maths. Knowing your strengths and weaknesses is one thing, completely avoiding a topic is quite another. Who knows? I might have a secret talent for it!

If you are interested in hearing more, I thoroughly recommend reading the University of Sheffield's Maths Anxiety presentation here. Thank you very much to Ellen Marshall and Victoria Mann for delivering the presentation. More references can be found below:

Perry, A.B. (2004), Decreasing Math Anxiety in College Students, College Student
Journal, 38 (2), 321-324.
Spicer, J. (2004), Resources to Combat Math Anxiety. Eisenhower National
Clearinghouse Focus, 12(12). 
Young, C. B., Wu, S. S., & Menon, V. (2012), The Neurodevelopmental Basis of Math
Anxiety. Psychological Science, 0956797611429134.