Fear of mathematics can cause children to be less motivated in class, feel uncomfortable and later choose a career in which mathematical knowledge is hardly required. A study has now used data from the 2012 PISA study to investigate which factors contribute to fear of the subject: Confidence in one’s own abilities and the subjective expectation of success play an important role. Objective performance, on the other hand, has a significantly smaller influence.
Anyone who is afraid of embarrassing themselves in class or getting bad grades in class tests can end up in a vicious circle: If the fear gets out of hand, it blocks important cognitive resources that can then no longer be used to understand the material or the to solve the tasks set. This problem can basically affect all school subjects, but is particularly common in math. The 2012 PISA study, which assessed the learning levels of students in 65 OECD countries, placed a particular focus on mathematical performance. In addition to the technical tasks, the young people also answered questions about their personal attitudes towards the subject and possible fears for the study.
Subjective factors most important
Dénes Szücs from the University of Cambridge in Great Britain and Enrico Toffalini from the University of Padua in Italy have now evaluated this data using a new approach. To find out which factors contribute to math anxiety, they correlated how the respondents assessed their own math skills, what their expectations of success were, and how important they considered the subject to be. The researchers also included actual performance.
The result: “Subjective self-perception was more strongly related to math anxiety than actual math performance,” report Szücs and Toffalini. “The more the students had the impression that they had control over the subject matter and the more they expected to be successful in math exams, the less afraid they were of the subject.” The connection to objective performance, however, was weaker pronounced. “Contrary to common stereotypes, 80 percent of adolescents with low math anxiety are not very afraid of math, while 80 percent of adolescents with high math anxiety perform average to high,” the authors said.
High performance does not automatically lead to self-confidence
This effect was particularly pronounced in countries such as China, Japan and Singapore. “Compared to other countries, young people in these countries have very high performance in mathematics, but at the same time report much greater math anxiety than would be expected based on their performance,” report Szücs and Toffalini. “It is important to see that high performance does not necessarily mean that the subjective expectation of success is also very high.”
In most countries examined, it was also found that girls reported being more afraid of math and had lower expectations of success than boys, even though their objective performance was at a similar level. In Germany, however, this gender difference was comparatively less pronounced. Regarding the question of how important young people find math and how this affects their fear of the subject, the researchers came across a surprising result: “Children who rated math as more important had similar levels of subjective control and expectation of success Fear of math as children who rated the subject as less relevant,” the team said.
Advice on measures to combat math anxiety
According to the researchers, the results have important implications for possible measures to reduce math anxiety. “Our findings suggest that effective interventions may rely on gradually building confidence in one’s mathematical abilities. These may rely primarily on a deeper understanding of the subject, which improves subjective expectancy of success and sense of control over mathematical activities,” they write.
“Our results also suggest that – seemingly paradoxically – interventions that focus exclusively on teaching young people the importance of mathematics would be counterproductive.” If students are not simultaneously made to feel in control of the material According to Szücs and Toffalini, such a measure would probably increase the fear of math. “Teachers should therefore not overemphasize the importance of mathematics from the outset,” they recommend. “Rather, our results suggest that the subjective value of mathematics can be built ‘naturally’ by students themselves as their self-efficacy, self-concept, and perception of control improve.”
Source: Dénes Szücs (University of Cambridge, UK) et al., Royal Society Open Science, doi: 10.1098/rsos.231000