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Content Section

Math Anxiety ( Educational Practices Series 31 )


Many students have a debilitating emotional reaction to mathematics termed “mathematics anxiety” .

Mathematics is often perceived as a difficult subject by many students, parents and teachers alike. Difficulties with the subject are most often attributed to cognitive factors (lack of ability, preparedness, practice and knowledge). Emotional factors are often overlooked and are easily written off as potential persistent and serious causes of mathematical learning difficulties. However, it is increasingly recognized in psychology and education that several students have serious negative emotional reactions to mathematics. These emotional problems can lead to performance difficulties and/or can become obstacles that discourage students from further mathematics training even if their performance is good.

This debilitating emotional reaction to mathematics is termed “mathematics anxiety” (MA). MA is “a feeling of tension and anxiety that interferes with the manipulation of numbers and the solving of mathematical problems in… ordinary life and academic situations” (Richardson and Suinn, 1972).

MA ranges from the feeling of mild tension to experiencing strong fear. MA is not restricted to classroom situations or to children. Rather, MA can generalize to out of school situations and can affect adults. For example, MA can manifest itself in everyday situations about handling numbers such as when counting change in shops or doing basic mathematics under time pressure. MA is often present in normally performing students, discouraging them from choosing math related careers. A structured universal prevention program for MA does not yet exist. Most of the activities we suggest here are based on the principles of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and the Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT). These methods help individuals to identify self-defeating thoughts and feelings, challenge the rationality of those feelings, and replace them with more productive beliefs.