Helping pupils overcome a fear of maths

Ask any pupil about their ‘worst’ subject at school and you will often get the answer, ‘maths’. Many adults will agree – weirdly it’s still socially acceptable to say you are ‘bad at maths’, or ‘not a maths person’. This has got to change and I’m convinced that removing the ‘fear’ around the subject will go a long way towards developing more positive attitudes towards this vital skill.

I believe that a sharp focus on confidence and building a positive mental attitude to tackling difficult maths problems is the way to go. By changing a child’s attitude towards maths you can improve the way that they learn. Essentially you build resilience – inspiring self belief and getting them to feel confident that they are capable of tackling even the most difficult-looking maths problems, provided they use the right mindset.

A handful of researchers have examined cognitive style in mathematics (Chinn and Ashcroft 1998) who found that; “Within the school curriculum learning mathematics is uniquely challenging in that it is highly organised, sequential and progressive.”

On top of that, there are other factors that make maths ‘difficult’.  Firstly pupils have to remember and recall lots of different things at a rapid rate and are called upon to memorise formulas.  They may lack the vocabulary to describe the difficulties that they experience and can also be short of opportunities to practice and embed what they have learned in a range of different contexts.  Finally, at the end of the course, they need to take a high-stakes individual test. It’s no wonder some pupils find it stressful.

So instead of just throwing more content at a child clearly struggling, it’s important to step back, look at the basics and break down any barriers to learning. Anxiety is often chief among them, with a fear of failure often leading to a defeatist or hostile attitude to maths – which is not helpful to teaching or learning.  Such attitudes usually mean that a pupil doesn’t even attempt a question that they don’t like the look of – yet there are marks to be had in an exam simply by showing some workings.

It’s also useful to review key mathematical concepts, making sure they understand the vocabulary around the subject.  Providing team work opportunities helps to demonstrate that they are not alone in struggling with maths.  I often like to use the analogy of ‘the pit’ – the idea being that you may feel you are not getting very far in your struggle to get out of it, but with practice and resilience you will escape.

There are four basic steps to building resilient learners. They are:

1] to instill the belief that maths in a valuable subject, identifying its value in the wider world and      beyond exams,

2] to recognise that struggling with maths is common and that the learner is not alone,

3] to grow confidence that everyone can develop skills in maths, by breaking down the problem- solving process, and

4] to react positively towards negative situations in maths and tackle the problem head on

Working through these steps will help to develop confident learners who are able to work independently and willing to take risks, resulting in resilient, resourceful and enthusiastic learners. The benefits will be felt in other subjects too, not just maths, but also to wider skills in confidence and problem-solving.

Leave a Reply