Weak math skills or lack of motivation? Researchers seek answers to math anxiety

Many of us have struggled with math formulas, fractions, and percentages in school, breaking a sweat in the process. Math anxiety can be so intense that it hinders learning. Why is learning math difficult for some people? This subject is being studied at the University of Oulu.
Vihreällä liitutaululla värikkäitä muovisia numeroita.

Mathematical skills are needed in everyday tasks, in school, in studies, and in the workplace. For most, using and applying mathematical skills is routine, but for some, even thinking about math causes anxiety, they have no interest in it, or learning math is extremely challenging, and their proficiency is weak.

"The concept of a 'weak math head' doesn't really exist, and we should get rid of this stigmatizing term. Several factors may contribute to why some students have weaker mathematical skills than others, including low motivation to study, negative emotions, weak working memory, difficulties in language skills, or challenges in processing numerical information in their minds," says Professor of Special Education Riikka Mononen.

Researchers at the University of Oulu are seeking answers to dyscalculia, a specific difficulty in mathematics skills and learning, which affects about 3-6 percent of the population, as well as students' experience of math anxiety.

Dyscalculia is thought to result from disruptions in the neurological and cognitive processes required for understanding and processing numerical quantities. "A student's performance and proficiency in other subjects, such as language and literature or biology, can be good or excellent, with difficulties only appearing in mathematics," explains Mononen.

The relationship between math anxiety and performance among young people is already well-known, but there is still limited research on elementary school students in this regard. Mononen leads the iFeelMath project, which investigates when, how, and why math anxiety develops during elementary school years.

At the University of Oulu, researchers are especially interested in the emotions students experience during math learning and their connection to proficiency. At the same time, they are searching for ways to alleviate their math anxiety.

This research is the first to take a situational perspective, providing more information about the relationship between math anxiety and proficiency. The study also measures physiological changes. Anxiety has been found to activate the autonomic nervous system, which is detected through changes in skin conductance. Skin conductance increases when sweat appears on the skin due to anxiety. Emotions during math tasks can also be identified based on facial expressions.

"There is still relatively little information on how teachers can help students experiencing math anxiety. We are developing and testing intervention programs aimed at reducing math anxiety and improving math skills," says Riikka Mononen.

These intervention programs include practicing multiplication strategies and using mindfulness-type exercises. The materials will be made available to teachers towards the end of the project.

In the first phase of the research, approximately 400 fourth-grade students from schools in the Vaasa region are participating, and they will be followed until the sixth grade. In the second phase, students from different parts of Finland will participate.

Advancing technology and methodological expertise bring new perspectives and solutions to future research on learning difficulties. This basic research can be used to develop intervention programs to support math learning and increase the joy of learning.

iFeelMath is a consortium project of the University of Oulu and Åbo Akademi University (2022-2026) funded by the Research Council of Finland.

Last updated: 26.9.2023