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‘Maths Anxiety’? The solution is in the problem (and how it is set)

If simultaneous equations leave you in a spin, relax. New research confirms that an approach which ‘opens up’ maths learning encourages us to persevere, acquiring important skills along the way.

Mathematical problem-solving skills are essential for many careers, but a significant number of students still write themselves off as ‘not smart enough’, with gender diversity among those studying maths particularly poor. A new study from the University of Essex has confirmed that a ‘mathematical mindsets’ approach, which aims to empower students through a new approach to teaching, increases motivation among learners.

The Essex study, by Dr Ian Daly, Jake Bourgaize and Dr Alexei Vernitski, published in Trends in Neuroscience and Education, is the first to use brain-scanning technology to confirm that students display increased motivation when conventional problems are replaced by a ‘mathematical mindsets’ approach.

The ‘mathematical mindsets’ approach aims to take the fear out of learning maths. It employs a range of techniques, which include encouraging students to see numbers in different ways and to ‘pitch’ their solution or workings to another member of the class.

Dr Vernitski said: “The ability to solve mathematical problems is developed over time, but sadly many students become discouraged too soon. To improve diversity, both in maths and society, we must find an approach to teaching maths which better motivates students. Our research confirms that an approach based on ‘mathematical mindsets’ can deliver increased motivation. Over time, we hope this increased motivation will result in individuals adopting a ‘growth mindset’ – the belief that they can succeed.”

Participants were asked to attempt both ‘standard’ and ‘mindsets’ problems. They recorded their own motivation when faced with each task and an electroencephalogram (EEG) was used to measure electrical activity in their brains.

Dr Daly said: “The EEG showed greater activity in areas of the brain associated with motivation when the subject was faced with a ‘mindsets’ problem. This is the first study to use an EEG to confirm what participants have told us and it provides important evidence for the effectiveness of a ‘mindsets’ approach in increasing learner motivation.”

The ‘mathematical mindsets’ approach is defined by a series of principles, written by Jo Boaler of Stanford University and intended to promote self-belief in the student’s ability to tackle mathematical problems.

It draws on Carol Dweck’s mindset theory which, in the simplest terms, states that a person can become good at something they are currently bad at.

Boaler’s approach has attracted support amongst educators but actual evidence for its effectiveness has, until now, been limited.

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