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Functional Skills – Maths anxiety

Chris Briggs - Sector Manager Post 16 English, Maths and Digital Skills at Pearson

According to figures, up to 17 million adults are not working at Level 2 for maths, the Department for Education is looking to address this with its Multiply programme over the next three years. Anxiety among learners is on the rise and maths anxiety is commonplace.

Learning needs to address and support these learners, and the thousands of 16-19 year olds in the same situation. COVID has not helped matters, the lack of face-to-face teaching made it easier than ever for learners to not engage fully and success rates have dipped (especially in Functional Skills) as a result.

Teachers’ Top Tips

So, how can we address maths anxiety? How can we support all these learners to overcome their fears and develop their much-needed skills? We spoke with Matt Davies from the Army Foundation College about this.

Matt doesn’t separate maths anxiety from any other form of anxiety; it’s what builds when there are too many ‘things’ to process at the same time. He has the following tips to help:

  • Have an array of support to hand for the anxious learners.  Even when working on non-calculator work, learners find it comforting to have a times table grid in front of them, which can also be used for division (although they still must work out remainders).
  • Concept-building can be done with real objects.  For example, teaching the concept of volume from first principles can be done by using wooden blocks, stacked to form a cuboid.  It doesn’t matter if these are not centimetre cubes as you’re only trying to show how to calculate the number in the stack.  Measurements can come later. 
  • Use verbal questions to overcome any anxiety as verbal questions can be asked openly to a class rather than targeting any one individual (who may be ‘anxious’ when it comes to giving an answer in front of their mates).  More confident students) can be asked reasoning questions (again verbally) to justify their thoughts and it still feels like a sharing of knowledge within the class, rather than an individual struggle by any one anxious learner.
  • Scaffolding written questions is another way to support the anxious.  This could be in the form of steps/stages on cards for learners to follow – more confident learners could arrange these steps prior to performing them. This approach lends itself to a good degree of differentiation too as some can receive cards and some may not
  • In short, good quality support in class and a teacher who is trusted by the learner helps alleviate anxiety.

The scaffolding point is a good one. Problem-solving is key for Functional Skills maths, and it is one of the areas that learners do struggle with in the assessment. To this end, Pearson ran some training earlier this year on problem-solving and we are working on some scaffolded resources to use with learners in the near future.

Teachers’ Insight

As part of our further look into maths anxiety, we asked teachers online for their top tips:

Encouragement and praise – all the time! Lessons need to be safe – a place where they can get things right! Focus on what they can do and celebrate it. Get them to trust you! A slow journey but it’s worth putting in the right foundations so you can build on it when they are ready.
Esther Tombs – Mathematics Lecturer

Initially I remove all hint of time pressure – from tasks, from questioning, everything. Then we build skills and confidence before gradually reinstating.
Jennifer Long – Curriculum Lead
Remove the problem-solving element to start with. Think about the learner’s job role or personal experiences and work on contextualising as much as possible. Get learners to complete questions which they can relate to before moving to other contexts. And tell them they’re not alone.
Helen Bramble – Functional Skills Trainer

Assessment Anxiety

One of the key areas of anxiety is around the assessment itself. We spoke with Melinda Briggs, a counsellor with experience of maths and English teaching about assessment anxiety and how it manifests itself and how learners can prepare for assessments.

There are many symptoms of assessment anxiety and these range from difficulty sleeping and/or eating to feelings of inadequacy and negative thoughts. Physically it can cause an increased heart rate, a sense of nausea, stomach cramps and difficulty breathing. In some circumstances it can lead to low self-esteem, anger or depression. So, what can be done to support learners with assessment anxiety? Melinda recommends some good practice for revision to reduce it before it overwhelms learners.

These include:

  • Making a revision plan
  • Taking regular breaks
  • Use flashcards or record yourself
  • Revise with a friend
  • Make use of your tutors and the support from the provider
  • Do practice papers

Melinda also recommended a technique for anxious learners that she often uses called 4-7-8 breathing:

  • Breathe in four 4 seconds
  • Hold for 7 seconds
  • Breathe out for 8 seconds

This helps clear the mind and calms the brain.

Hopefully the tips and advice in this article will help support your learners with maths anxiety. If you have any further tips, please do share them with us.

By Chris Briggs – Sector Manager Post 16 English, Maths and Digital Skills at Pearson

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