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New resources address maths anxiety for students and teachers

ACER news 6 minute read

Strategies to promote mathematics are central to a new toolkit which could be a gamechanger in schools, and for the wider community.

The Australian Council for Educational Research (ACER) and the Victorian Academy of Teaching and Leadership (VATL) have created a suite of resources for teachers, parents and students to improve maths learning.

It’s a substantial response to a nation-wide challenge, with declining achievement in maths by Australia’s 15-year-olds since 2003, and fewer students choosing one or more maths subjects in year 12.

The toolkit focuses on increasing engagement with maths by reducing maths anxiety and helping students to see  the value of mathematical skills.

ACER researchers identified maths anxiety and low appreciation of the subject as the biggest barriers when developing ACER’s Mathematics Anxiety and Engagement Strategy (MAES) in 2018.

The MAES, which originally focused on working with primary educators, has been extended to inform the new resources for secondary school students and teachers.

What's new?

This week, ACER released a new, easy-reference framework for educators and policymakers, sharing the research in education, psychology and neuroscience that underpins the innovative MAES approach.

Drawing on this framework, ACER and VATL have developed practical information sheets and posters for teachers, students and parents; they are available on the VATL website.

The resources include a maths ‘check-in’ chart to help students and teachers identify how they are feeling about the subject in the moment, and a maths ‘headspace’ wheel that links emotions and attitudes to strategies that can help users reset.

Parents are encouraged to see common stereotypes of those lacking maths skills as myths and are given suggestions for responses that build a positive perception of maths when they can’t help with problems.

Additionally, the VATL has created a series of podcasts, interviewing ACER Senior Research Fellow Dr Sarah Buckley – lead author of the MAES framework – on how teachers can support secondary students experiencing maths anxiety, how to help anxious students feel in control, and the role parents can play in improving achievement.

How the framework informs the resources 

With research indicating that some anxiety can actually help learning, the framework supports regulating emotions.

It notes that anxious students guided to think of the heightened emotion as excitement rather than anxiety tend to perform better on maths tasks than students who aren’t given advice or told to ‘stay calm’

The evidence behind the approach encouraging students to value mathematics is also highlighted in the framework.

ACER longitudinal research shows one of the strongest indicators of whether a secondary student will choose tertiary studies in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) is how much they valued maths at age 15.

But insight from the framework indicates that teachers telling students why maths is important can have a negative effect on students’ interests and achievements, while students generating their own reasons  can be positive.

Drawing on this finding, the resources provide teachers with practical advice and strategies to encourage students to identify maths’ value  in situations meaningful to them.

‘Maths anxiety can be a significant barrier for some people; symptoms can interfere with working memory and the ability to learn or teach at your best,’ Dr Buckley says.

‘We know it can peak in the early teenage years, and that if students who experience it aren’t able to reduce its impact, it can influence their future education choices and careers, but it’s also not something that has to stick.

'With the right strategies, learning to gain control over anxiety can be a pathway to being a more resilient learner or teacher.’

Supporting educators impacted by maths anxiety is as important as supporting students who experience it, Dr Buckley says, noting research that suggests higher levels of maths anxiety in teachers can affect their teaching practices.

‘These resources that draw on ACER’s MAES framework, provide students, teachers and parents with some concrete tools to address two key barriers to maths persistence in the classroom and at home,’ she says.

‘We think they could be a gamechanger for helping secondary students develop more positive attitudes towards maths.’

Dr Buckley co-authored the framework with ACER colleagues Dr Kate Reid, Dr Catherine Pearn, and Dr Shani Sniedze.


Find out more:

Read ACER's Mathematics Anxiety and Engagement Strategy (MAES): A framework

Access the resources pack 

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