Needless to say, when studying mathematics, it doesn’t take long for many students to feel confused and overwhelmed. The solution, ask for help. But, during online learning, access to teachers for reassurance and encouragement was limited.

Teachers struggled to maintain affinity in the impersonal digital world and encourage children to re-engage. Students, who experienced anxiety often went silent, this was even more damaging if parents or guardian’s were also preoccupied at work.

There is a name for this trepidation, known as Mathematical Anxiety, and the pandemic has only inflamed the situation.

Kumon, a leading tutoring provider, states, based on decades of educational experience: “Mathematics Anxiety is experienced by more than 2 million schoolchildren in England, and can cause feelings of apprehension, tension or discomfort when performing mathematical problems in both academic situations and everyday life.”

I hope to explain what causes this trepidation and solutions that will allow students to overcome this anxiety.

The first aspect which makes it alarming to many is the emphasis on mathematical accuracy and rigidity.

When mathematics is taught, students are instructed that there is only one way of arriving at an answer and that arriving at an accurate answer is very important. There is not enough concentration on whether a student has learnt the concept and only focus on arriving at the correct answer. When this occurs, students begin to relate mathematics with rigidity, when in reality, mathematics is not one solution, but a cumulation of many.

A solution to this  is to allow students to devise their own unique way of solving problems. This can ignite mathematical originality and stimulate a fascination for the subject, whilst also strengthening problem solving ability.

The second instigator of Mathematical Anxiety is the fact it is often taught in memorization, rather than the fluidity of problem solving.

Being good at mathematics is strongly linked with having a good memory. This is accurate because numerous mathematical concepts are taught through memorization, without reasoning to apply logic to them. In actual fact, a child becomes good at mathematics when they can solve problems by applying reason, not by simply remembering formulae that they don’t understand mathematical explanations. 

To mitigate this, we can avoid memorisation and explain what causes these formulae to exist. We should not give the student an answer but rather a starting point, so they themselves can use problem solving and existing knowledge to find innovative solutions.

Another and more fundamental reason behind mathematical anxiety is a lack of understanding. Mathematics is made up of a number of steps, many of which are small in nature. Not being able to learn or understand even a single step has impactful consequences. Students begin to fall behind if that step is fundamental to learning other concepts. They are unable to piece together a full and detailed representation of the problem as an element is missing. 

The final reason I will explore is the fact that mathematics seems like an abstract concept, rather than something connected to real life.

Perhaps if students knew about mathematics concepts and how they apply to everything around us (the Fibonacci sequence, symmetry, the weather, money, fuel mileage etc.), then mathematics would seem a lot more approachable and understandable.

The reasons and solutions I have stated here are only the surface level of understanding anxiety. More psychological studies must be completed, and accessible solutions need to be developed. I am optimistic about the future of mathematical education, with the UKMT Mathematical Challenge encouraging students to explore problem solving.

There is also a wealth of modern mathematical role models to inspire the next generation of mathematicians. Hannah Fry is one of the most prominent, a flame-haired powerhouse who presents the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures and numerous television shows; I recommend Magic Numbers and her novel Hello World.

There has never been a better time to innovate mathematical education, and the impact it can have is boundless. Now, schools have returned to a form of normality, the reinforced connections between peers and teachers, has allowed some students to cope with mathematical anxiety through support and encouragement.