One of the most influential aspects which affects the quality of numerate behaviour


Math anxiety is a product of schooling. Only when chidren enter school at a certain age, they are confronted with a subject matter which not only pretends to equip them with valuable skills, but also is a source of endless negative feedback during learning (wrong answers, red pencils, red crosses in digital lesson materials) and of selection and negative labeling (“no math talents”, “low numerate”, “innumerate”, “gaps”: , “remedy’s”,  et cetera).

The phenomemon was described for the first time by Sheila Tobias (1978) in her groundbreaking publication “Overcoming Math Anxiety”.


  • Which role plays math anxiety in the life of adult individuals?
  • How can math anxiety be addressed in adult numeracy courses?
  • Which educational activities or approaches can trigger and worsen math anxiety?







Possible causes


“There are books, research and journal articles about maths anxiety that are disproportionately higher than subject specific anxiety around any other National Curriculum subject. Perhaps it is the idea that maths is either right or wrong, that causes this anxiety- the unforgiving nature of a subject felt to be largely black or white, without the shades of grey in English or the openness to interpretation of the social sciences? Maybe it is the way in which maths so often becomes too abstract too quickly in many classroom contexts, with little or no reference to concrete manipulatives and pictorial representations beyond early key stage two? It could even stem from the lie that some people are ‘maths people’ whilst others are not, or the systemic view in some cultures that it is OK to be rubbish at maths and even joke about this in a way in which illiteracy would never be held up in self-ridicule.”


Discuss these possible causes in the PD-meeting

Biographical conversations instead of assessments

To determine a learner’s current numeracy level, the most common approach is to use a test, without considering whether it will trigger a long history of math anxiety and terrible math or numeracy experiences.

In adult education, it is a very sensible approach to conduct an empathetic interview about school, about their experiences, about the way they use math now in their daily lives, focused on success.

Reduce math anxiety

What precautions should be taken to reduce math anxiety:

  • in lesson materials?
  • In the approach to learners?
  • in the use of asessments and tests?


Some history

Read the first article by Sheila Tobias published in 1976.   PDF is available here.

Describe how you relate to this article. What has changed in 50 years? What is still the same in your opinion?

BTW: The concept of “number anxiety” was introduced by Dreger and Aiken  in 1957.

Assessment and Instruments

Study several surveys/test/instruments to determine math anxiety. Which are suitable for your own teaching situation?

Translate and adapt instruments to determine math anxiety.

Math anxiety versus performance anxiety

See Dowker (2016) and other resources to make a summary of the overlap and distinction between math anxiety and other anxieties.


* Sheila Tobias (1978) Overcoming math anxiety.
Sheila Tobias (1993) Overcoming math anxiety. (New and expanded edition)
In several places in the Internet free copies in pdf can be found.


* Dowker c.s. (2016) gave an overview of research on Math Anxiety in the last 60 years.  
The construct of mathematics anxiety has been an important topic of study at least since t and has received increasing attention in recent years. The paper focuses on what research has revealed about mathematics anxiety in the last 60 years, and what still remains to be learned. Topic which are discussed are:

  • what is mathematics anxiety 
  • how distinct it is from other forms of anxiety; 
  • how it relates to attitudes to mathematics. 
  • the relationships between mathematics anxiety and mathematics performance. 
  • research on treatment

Also you can find some ways in which mathematics anxiety is measured, both by questionnaires, and by physiological measures. They discuss some possible factors in mathematics anxiety, including genetics, gender, age, and culture. 

* Ryan & Fitzmaurice (2017)

Recent resesrch and ideas on math anxiety and adult learners can be found in a article by Ryan & Fitzmaurice (2017: Behind the Numbers
The Preliminary Findings of a Mixed Methods Study Investigating the Existence of Mathematics Anxiety Among Mature Students.




  • Dowker, A., Sarkar, A., & Looi, C. Y. (2016). Mathematics Anxiety: What Have We Learned in 60 Years? Frontiers in Psychology, 7(APR).
  • Foley, A. E., Herts, J. B., Borgonovi, F., Guerriero, S., Levine, S. C., & Beilock, S. L. (2017). The Math Anxiety-Performance Link. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 26(1), 52–58.
  • Skagerlund, K., Östergren, R., Västfjäll, D., & Träff, U. (2019). How does mathematics anxiety impair mathematical abilities? Investigating the link between math anxiety, working memory, and number processing. PLoS ONE, 14(1), 1–17.
  • Schmitz, E. (2020). Missing factors in math anxiety : the role of emotional components, math behaviour, and cognitive biases in adolescents’ math anxiety . print: Ridderprint.
  • Artemenko, C., Daroczy, G., & Nuerk, H.-C. (2015). Neural correlates of math anxiety – an overview and implications. Frontiers in Psychology, 6(September).
  • Maloney, E. A., Schaeffer, M. W., & Beilock, S. L. (2013). Mathematics anxiety and stereotype threat: shared mechanisms, negative consequences and promising interventions. Research in Mathematics Education, 15(2), 115–128.
  • Ryan, M., & Fitzmaurice, O. (2017) Behind the numbers. The preliminary findings of a mixed methods study investigating the existence of mathematics anxiety among mature students. Adults Learning Mathematics: An International Journal, 12(1), 49-58. 
  • Tobias, S. (1978). Overcoming Math Anxiety. W.W. Norton & Company.
  • Tobias, S. (1993). Overcoming Math Anxiety – Revised and Expanded ed. W. W. Norton & Company.