Long since finishing school, I have had the ubiquitous nightmare of sitting in an exam room with a test that I am completely not prepared for. In my head the topic in front of me is almost always maths, with numbers and meaningless equations dancing on the page.
Maths is a particularly daunting subject because there is no ambiguity. While English, art and even history is occasionally open to interpretation, with maths there is very much a right and a wrong answer and a complete absence of a grey area. Perhaps this is why a lot of students fear maths. In fact, a recent paper confirmed that mathematic anxiety is an actual phenomenon and one that is partially due to genetics.
The study, published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, examined the predisposition to maths anxiety in 216 pairs of identical and 298 pairs of fraternal, teenage, twins, through a series of tests and surveys. The authors of the paper wanted to see why children become scared of maths when they get older, as this fear often prevents them from performing well in class.
“You say the word ‘math[s]’ and some people actually cringe,” one of the authors said in a press release. “It is not like learning how to read, in which people don’t normally have any general anxiety unless they have some kind of difficulty.”
The research uncovered that 40 per cent of those children with maths anxiety were genetically inclined to have the condition. Those who were prone to general anxiety and those who found maths difficult were more vulnerable. However, the rest of maths anxiety prevailed as a result of the home and school environment. “These findings indicate the importance of identifying child-specific (rather than family-level) experiences that may underlie the development of both general anxiety and maths anxiety, such as unique parental educational expectation toward each sibling, unique parent–child and peer relationships, and different quality of math[s] education experienced in math classes,” the authors wrote in the study.
In my case, both of my parents were great at maths but the classroom played a huge role in making me nervous. Solving a problem on the whiteboard not only exposed my bad handwriting but the gaps in my understanding. I could see classmates prod each other knowingly at the point of the equation where I went wrong and I often wonder whether I would have pursued maths more comfortably without the pressure.
Today, computer programs like the Khan Academy and Matific help students overcome these issues in their own time. Giving them room to make mistakes in private without the embarrassment of failure. These types of programs don’t reprimand a student for their shortcomings instead they teach them to leap over these hurdles. I often wonder where would I be if this kind of technology existed when I was in high school. Perhaps my nightmares would have an entirely different theme.