‘Maths anxiety’ causes students to disengage


  • ‘Maths anxiety’ and fear of failure causes disengagement and creates learning barriers.
  • Elements of video game design techniques could help offer solutions for classrooms.
  • Study comes as Government calls for a universal maths education for young people.


A new study from the University of Sussex – released today (14 November) – has revealed that ‘maths anxiety’ can lead to disengagement and create significant barriers to learning.

According to charity National Numeracy, over a third of adults in the UK report feeling worried or stressed when faced with maths, a condition known as maths anxiety.

The new paper, titled ‘Understanding mathematics anxiety: loss aversion and student engagement’, finds that teaching which relies on negative framing, such as punishing students for failure, or humiliating them for being disengaged, is more likely to exacerbate maths anxiety and disengagement.

The paper says that in order to successfully engage students in maths, educators and parents must build a safe environment for trial and error and allow students space to make mistakes and stops learners reaching the point where the threat of failure becomes debilitating.

Author Dr C. Rashaad Shabab, Reader in Economics in the University of Sussex Business School, said:

“As the government seeks to implement universal maths education throughout higher secondary school, potentially a million more people will be required to study maths who might otherwise have chosen not to.

“The results of this study deliver important guiding principles and interventions to educators and parents alike who face the prospect of teaching maths to children who might be a little scared of it and so are at heightened risk of developing mathematics anxiety.

“Teachers should tell students to look at maths as a puzzle, or a game. If we put a piece of a puzzle in the wrong place, we just pick it up and try again. That’s how maths should feel. Students should be told that it’s okay to get it wrong, and in fact that getting it wrong is part of how we learn maths. They should be encouraged to track their own improvement over time, rather than comparing their achievements with other classmates.

“All of these interventions, basically take the ‘sting’ out of getting it wrong, and it’s the fear of that ‘sting’ that keeps students from disengaging. The findings could pave the way for tailored interventions to support students who find themselves overwhelmed by the fear of failure.”

Using behavioural economics, which combines elements of economics and psychology to understand how and why people behave the way they do, the research, from the University of Sussex’s Business School, identifies maths anxiety as a reason why even dedicated students can become disengaged. This often results in significant barriers to learning, both for the individual in question and others in the classroom.

The paper goes onto say that modern technology and elements of video game design can help those struggling with mathematics anxiety through a technique called ‘dynamic difficulty adjustment’. This would allow the development of specialist mathematics education computer programmes to match the difficulty of maths exercises to the ability of each student. Such a technique, if adopted, would keep the problems simple enough to avoid to triggering anxiety, but challenging enough to improve learning.