The Problem with Math Anxiety

Since the 1970’s when it was first identified, there have been many studies of mathematics anxiety, but what if we are looking in the wrong place for answers? What is termed “anxiety” may be a normal response to mathematics education.1 And even if it is not, we have a society-wide issue with mathematics in the United States,2 so it would be useful to view problems with mathematics in a context that can include community and culture.3 Placing mathematical issues in the frame of anxiety pathologizes the experiences of people struggling with mathematics and make those struggles individual rather than communal.

In the 1970’s and early 1980’s, when early work to frame mathematics anxiety was being done, there was little theoretical underpinning to the study of affective issues in mathematics, and the early work in mathematics anxiety was limited to largely quantitative studies that looked for demonstrable correlation between measures of anxiety and measures of mathematics performance.4 The work lost its political aspect and turned to a study of why girls and women were anxious about math and how to correct that problem. Thus while the problem was reframed from why girls and women are bad at math to why girls and women are anxious about math and what educators might do to help, the frame is still one in which girls and women are flawed in some important way. Perhaps with this new frame, they are flawed in a way that can be fixed, and perhaps we can see that it might be society and educational contexts that contributed to the flaw, but it is still a flaw belonging to the girls and women. As Laura Jacobsen Spielman notes, “Deficit model assumptions that male behavior and outcomes are the desirable norm to which women should strive have underpinned previous policy, much research, and even many intervention programs.5

What is the cause of mathematics anxiety? There has not been sufficient research about the causes of math anxiety, but there is evidence pointing to teachers as a cause.6 Peter Hilton notes in his article from 1980 on mathematics anxiety that math as it is taught in classrooms is “likely to lead them to seek to avoid mathematics.”7 This thinking lays blame on teachers, who are primarily women. “If we must use a medical metaphor, then we are dealing with a mass infection caused by the virus of bad mathematics teaching.” 8 One of the ways that we have responded to our mathematical issues as a society is to push for reforms in mathematics education, but a continual cascade of reforms is hard on teachers, and and creates or exacerbates fear and shame.9 Thus in addressing mathematics anxiety, we may inadvertantly exacerbate the anxiety problem, as there is evidence that mathematics anxiety in teachers can negatively impact students (and particularly the anxiety in female teachers can negatively impact girls’ mathematics attitudes and achievement).

1. Johnston, 1995

2. Ginsberg et. al., 2005

3. Apple, 1990 and Lave, 1988

4. McLeod, 1992

5. Equity in mathematics education: Unions and intersections of feminist and social justice literature p. 648 in

6. Ashcraft, 2002

7. Hilton, 1980, p. 176

8. Ibid, p. 176.

9. Hargreaves, 1998


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