MIE Building Evidence into Education (BEE) blog

Dr Maria Pampaka

Senior Lecturer

Maria is a Senior Lecturer at the Institute of Education and the Social Statistics group, at the University of Manchester, UK. She is substantially interested in the association between teaching practices and students’ learning outcomes. Maria can be contacted at maria.pampaka@manchester.ac.uk

David Swanson

Tutor - PGCE Mathematics

David teaches on the secondary PGCE Mathematics course at Manchester and researches in the areas of concept development, teacher professional development and critical mathematics education.

For our second BEE post of the month focusing on maths achievement, Maria and David have written an overview of their study examining maths anxiety in pupils.


This blog post is based on the work of a larger group including colleagues at the University of Manchester and other universities in the UK commissioned by the British Academy[i] to review the existing evidence on mathematics anxiety in order to inform policy and practice, and future research.

What we did

We looked at mathematics-related emotions’ in general, and ‘anxiety’ in particular, from several different points of view, such as: biology, neuroscience, psychology, anthropology, and education. We examined literature from these disciplines as long as they addressed emotions and anxiety around mathematics. We reviewed approximately 800 research papers, and reviewed other sources like policy documents and news articles.  This was supported by policy and practice stakeholder /workshops throughout. For example, our first workshop involved sharing good and bad mathematics-related emotional experiences or memorable events involving learning and teaching , which then helped us map out what we wanted to search for.  A taste of these discussions can be seen in the posters shown below.


In this process, “mathematics anxiety” was seen as part of a group of ‘emotional experiences’ (e.g., sadness, confidence, joy etc.) that are associated with certain actions in maths activity. This anxiety  also depends on how we assess the value of the activity and our own potential to achieve our goals in the activity[i]. Many psychology studies have shown that this anxiety can be measured, and relates to learners’ feeling of panic when they feel under pressure to perform, usually for other people’s goals and in ways that may not make sense to them.

Why does maths make people particularly susceptible to anxiety?

Maths is often traditionally taught and assessed through questions which are either right or wrong. This poses a threat of “being wrong” in a way that might make one feel inadequate or stupid. This threat of failure is associated with anxiety.

In fact, we found that the features of maths most commonly linked with maths anxiety in our report were:

  • The right/wrong nature of maths
  • Time pressures – anxiety around testing and examinations is common in maths classrooms
  • The social embarrassment of getting the answer right or wrong
  • The stress of not understanding what they are being asked to recall and use.

This feeling of lack of control and pressure to perform to others’ standards, usually in a competitive, high stakes environment, is the peak of anxiety. Maths anxiety is also closely associated with assessment/testing, which is common in maths education.

Key findings of the review for teaching maths

We found that differences in classroom activities and teaching styles due to different ‘pedagogies’ are important for the emotional climate of a classroom. Maths teaching that is more traditional/transmissionist is generally seen as less effective for developing understanding, and it also seems to cause the most anxiety. This reflects other work we have done in MIE, where we found that students’ dispositions to mathematics are related to traditional/transmissionist teaching practices[ii].

Studies have also examined group differences and there are consistent gender differences in favour of boys, with girls reporting more maths anxiety. This needs to be taken into account in practice and policy focused on emotions and anxiety.

Teachers’ maths anxiety, especially primary school teachers, has been identified as a major problem. This is presumably because many teachers have anxious personal histories with maths and might also be anxious not to become “bad” maths teachers who pass this on.

More widely, we can see that the wider population is becoming more aware of anxiety and negative emotions in society and schooling.

Recommendations for teachers and teaching mathematics

 We have developed several recommendations for teachers and schools:

  • Adopting alternative, less traditionalist, teaching practices is needed to lessen learners’ negative emotions and attitudes. We found the following recommendations in the literature:
    • Find ways to make mathematics meaningful
    • Engage students and let them have an active role, e.g., problem solving
    • Use formative rather than summative assessment
    • Connect teaching to current student understanding and their thoughts on that understanding
    • Create space for social and collaborative learning
    • Develop relationships and respond to student emotions.
  • More learner control like choice of pace should be encouraged in learning contexts, as well as lighter lesson content demands.
  • Interventions are more likely to succeed if they are fun, relevant to daily life and/or include an element of personalised learning or tuition. ICT may provide one means of combining many of these things, although this could be an expensive solution in the current funding climate and it is equally important to discover ways that teachers themselves can influence maths anxiety.

[i] Link to website: www.mathsisok.com

[ii] Williams, J. (2017). Towards a theory of emotions in the ‘science of learning-teaching’:
the case of mathematics anxiety. Paper presented at BERA 2017.

[iii] See for example: Pampaka, M., Williams, J. S., Hutcheson, G., Wake, G., Black, L., Davis, P., & Hernandez – Martinez, P. (2012). The association between mathematics pedagogy and learners’ dispositions for university study. British Educational Research Journal, 38(3), 473-496.