Making Maths Count

Maths anxiety – a self-fulfilling prophecy we need to tackle

May 20, 2016 by 2 Comments | Category Education

Mike Ellicock, Chief Executive of UK charity National Numeracy, explains how developing a growth mindset could be the antidote to the maths anxiety experienced by millions in the UK.

However maths makes you feel, you’re not alone

Imagine the scenario…

Image of Mike Ellicock

Mike Ellicock believes we need to develop a growth mindset

You are faced with a task that involves numbers. This might be a stock take at work, hunting for the best multi-buys in the supermarket, desperately trying to resolve the bill with friends in a restaurant, or helping the kids with their homework. Wherever you are, the rising panic starts from your belly and works its way up. Your heart starts pounding, your palms are sweaty. Your mind feels blank. You might try and hide the way you feel. You might have flashbacks to how maths lessons made you feel at school. You might even blurt out ‘I’m rubbish at maths’ to try and ease the tension.

These are symptoms of maths anxiety.

According to Sian Beilock, professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, ‘for someone who has math anxiety, the anticipation of doing math prompts a similar brain reaction as when they experience pain — say, burning one’s hand on a hot stove.’(1)

The impact of a mind blank

These feelings are common amongst millions of adults in the UK. The impact of having a mind blank like this can significantly affect not only individuals’ life chances, but also the UK economy and international competitiveness.(2)

Yet for a problem which affects so many of us, we very seldom talk about it. At National Numeracy, we are trying to change that. We are a charity that helps people in the UK to improve their everyday maths skills. We don’t believe there is a maths gene allowing the lucky few to be good at maths. With belief and effort, anyone can improve.

Image for 'maths anxiety'

Millions in the UK can find their mind goes blank when faced with numbers

Can we cure maths anxiety?

Our ideas about where educational ability comes from have a strong effect on how we react to problems involving numbers. We’re much less likely to feel stressed by a maths problem if we believe we can improve with practice.(3)

This belief that you can learn anything if you’re willing to try, persevere and attempt different approaches is a characteristic of a growth mind-set – the antidote to maths anxiety.

Stanford University Professor Jo Boaler has proven the connection between struggle and brain growth. She has used the growth mind-set approach with hundreds of maths teachers, encouraging them to celebrate mistakes and recognise that to struggle is valuable.(4)

But what can we do to harness this power?

Through the National Numeracy Challenge (an interactive website which anyone can use to confidentially assess and improve their everyday maths skills), we asked around 12,000 people a few questions.
These included:

• When you get stuck with maths, can you think of different ways to keep trying?
• Do you think that everyone struggles with maths sometimes?
• Does your mind go blank when you need to do maths?

The links between people’s answers to these questions and how their numeracy levels improved are fascinating:

1) People who agreed that maths makes their mind go blank were much less likely to improve using the Challenge ‘check-up’ tool.
2) Those who agreed that they could think of different ways to keep trying were more likely to improve.
3) People who believe that everyone struggles with maths sometimes were more likely to improve their numeracy levels.

What blew us away was the significance of these findings (5) which powerfully support the idea of a growth mind-set. This suggests that ‘I can’t do maths’ is a self-fulfilling prophecy rather than a genetic or hereditary position.

We are continuing to grow this work and to look for ways to help people feel less anxious about maths. You can help us by spreading the message that anyone can improve if they try. Thousands of people are already doing so through the National Numeracy Challenge.

Developing confidence

And for those who face the pounding heart and sweating palms of maths anxiety, we’d like to see these people develop the confidence to take a deep breath, slow down and remember that they don’t have to solve this instantly. It might mean writing it down or drawing it out, grabbing a phone to use the calculator, or asking a colleague, bank advisor, or whoever has presented the information.

But most importantly, we want people to know that it’s ok (and perfectly normal) to struggle. That’s how we learn.

Read more on attitudes to maths in the National Numeracy think piece here or visit the Essentials of Numeracy to see how the components of being numerate relate to everyday life.

Mike Ellicock is Chief Executive of National Numeracy, an independent charity established in 2012 to help raise low levels of numeracy among both adults and children and to promote the importance of everyday maths skills.


3 Dweck, Carol. 2008. “Mindset and Math/Science Achievement “. Teaching & Leadership: Managing for Effective Teachers and Leaders.
5 Statistically significant with Chi-squared test results of X2 (3, N = 12583) ≥ 32.33, p < 0.001 for all three questions

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  • Robyn Dalby-Stockwell says:

    Maths anxiety can go way back to early school years. I find most kids do not mind maths. Those who fail exams are often poor readers. If they cannot read the questions they cannot supply an answer. So they are scared of failing an exam, often in a subject they would be able to do without any problems could they read better.

    • Jomtie says:

      I teach a lot of perfectly good readers who suffer from Maths Anxiety. I agree that poor reading hampers access to mathematical information but I do find that there are distinct groups.

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