NZDipALN Module 1 Content – Anxiety Caused by Learning including Maths Anxiety

Anxiety caused by learning

What is stress or anxiety caused by learning?

For many of our learners, and perhaps for us as well, learning often causes stress and anxiety. This anxiety can get in the way of learning. The anxiety that many adult learners feel is rooted in fear.

This could include:

  1. The fear of someone finding out about a particular learning disability or lack in some skill area. This could be an issue for someone who has never received appropriate support for a real learning disability, or who was treated badly by the education system.
  2. The fear of failing. Many learners tend to personalise their past educational failures. This means that returning to a learning environment of any kind can be a fearful experience.
  3. The fear of being laughed at. Unfair criticism or ridicule is enough to turn the bravest of us off learning. Many adults, especially those with learning difficulties that have not been identified, continue to live with the emotional fallout from this for years.

One specific kind of stress caused by learning that is relevant to adult learners is maths anxiety. Maths anxiety makes it hard for learners to access their working memory. This means they get blocked or can’t thinking logically when it comes time to answer a question. And of course this means that sometimes people score poorly on some tests, don’t pass courses. This in turn results in more limited career opportunities.

For some adults, even thinking about having to do maths causes a similar level of anxiety to thinking about being physically attacked. There are lots of reasons for this. Here are some of the main ones:

  1. Poor maths teaching
  2. Bad experiences with maths at school
  3. Maths is hard

Watch the video

Watch this TEDx talk by highschool teacher Robert Ahdoot on maths anxiety. You can stop at about 8:40.

He quotes some statistics regarding future jobs in the United States. Do you think this applies to New Zealand as well?

Professional reading

Recent findings from research on maths and numeracy both in New Zealand and overseas identify critical factors for successful numeracy teaching and learning.

Review the questions below then read the article below from Education Counts.

  1. How widespread is maths anxiety?
  2. How does attitude affect maths anxiety?
  3. What are some things that educators can do to reduce the effects of maths anxiety?

Many adults experience mathematics anxiety. This makes it difficult for them to access their working memory and think logically and results in lower course completion rates and limited career opportunities.

Research findings

Mathematics as a subject is perceived by many people as abstract and lacking in relevance. Where teaching approaches focus exclusively on correct answers and provide little cognitive support, learners that experience repeated failure may develop negative perceptions of their own mathematical ability which contribute to the development of mathematics anxiety. Although mathematics anxiety generally develops in childhood, its effects are still felt in adulthood and it is widespread throughout the population.

“Math anxiety is a bona fide anxiety reaction, a phobia with both immediate cognitive and long-term educational implications.” (Ashcraft, 2002, p. 184)

Mathematics anxiety decreases the efficiency of an individual’s working memory as intrusive thoughts and worries take the focus away from the mathematics task at hand. This makes it difficult for individuals to think logically and results in increased errors and longer processing times when solving problems mentally. In the longer term, mathematics anxiety leads to decreased competence and reduced course completion rates, which may restrict the career options available to adults.

Teachers that model positive attitudes towards mathematics have been found to positively influence the attitudes of anxious learners and mitigate the effects of mathematics anxiety on learning. Where learning programmes are focused on relevant content in meaningful contexts and learners are involved in open-ended activities with extended opportunities for problem solving and discussion, anxiety is also reduced.

Adult learners that aspire to a particular job or career experience a socialisation process as they train for that position. Where LLN skills are integral to vocational training, learners accept these as part of their new professional identity, leading to increased motivation and confidence for learning LLN and decreased mathematics anxiety.

Implications for practice

Adult numeracy educators need to be aware that mathematics anxiety will be affecting the learning of some course participants.

The effects of mathematics anxiety on learning can be mitigated by:

  • tutors that model positive attitudes towards mathematics
  • instructional programmes focused on relevant content in meaningful contexts
  • teaching and learning programmes that provide learners with extended opportunities for problem solving and discussion
  • vocational programmes that include LLN skills as an integral part of vocational training.

References: Ashcraft (2002); Ashcraft & Kirk (2001); Coben (2003); Evans (2000); Roberts et al. (2005); Swain et al. 2005); Torgerson et al. (2004).

Journal task

Choose one aspect of our approach to strengthening literacy and numeracy from the table below. Write at least 100 words about how your thoughts on anxiety caused by learning or specifically maths anxiety underpins this aspect of how teach. Consider what you actually think and do about this.


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