Time’s Up: Exploring the Relationship Between Time Pressure, Stress, and Maths Anxiety

Introduction: The Maths Anxiety Phenomenon

Time's Up: Exploring the Relationship Between Time Pressure, Stress, and Maths Anxiety

Ever notice how some of our students go from loving maths, like actually enjoying it, to cringing at the mere mention of numbers? You might think, “What’s up with that?” Well, that’s what we call ‘maths anxiety.’ Some kids get this jittery feeling when they have to deal with numbers, equations, and so on.

The Race Against Time in Maths

The funny thing is, this anxiety often only starts to kick in when maths starts to get a little less hands-on and a bit more… just-in-the-head. I’m talking about that jump from Key Stage 1 (KS1) to Key Stage 2 (KS2). Suddenly, it’s all about memorising number facts and shooting answers off the top of their heads. And if they can’t do that? Well, cue the stress sweats and butterflies in the tummy!

Somewhere along the line, the message that speed and instant recall are the be-all and end-all of maths seeps into our students’ minds. Who can blame them when that’s often how the system measures success, right? 

But we know there’s so much more to maths than that! It’s about problem-solving, resilience, logic, working systematically, and sticking with it until you get to the answer, no matter how long it takes.

I also mention this race idea in a previous blog https://www.jackpotmaths.com/2023/04/14/unlocking-maths-potential-debunking-myths-and-embracing-a-growth-mindset/ if you want to take another look. 

The Role of Teachers in Shaping Maths Attitudes

Here’s a tough cookie to swallow – some primary teachers might not feel so hot about our maths skills. Hey, no judgment! It’s not always our fault, especially with the pressures of standardised testing and sticking to the curriculum. But this could affect how our students end up feeling about maths.

The Neuroscience of Stress and Maths Anxiety

From a neuroscientific perspective, the relationship between stress and cognitive function is complicated and plays a significant role in maths anxiety. Let’s consider what’s happening in the brain during these high-stress situations.

The Cortisol Effect: Stress, Hormones and Their Impact on the Brain Structure 

Prefrontal Cortex

Our brain’s prefrontal cortex, the command centre for our executive functions, is responsible for all the high-level stuff like decision-making, problem-solving, and complex cognitive behaviour. It’s akin to the CEO of our brain. When we’re stressed out, this part of the brain can go into a frenzy due to the release of cortisol, our body’s alarm bell hormone. This hormone is primed for a ‘fight or flight’ response, which is handy when running away from a bear, but not so much when trying to solve a complex maths problem.

High levels of cortisol create a ‘cognitive overload’ condition in our prefrontal cortex, akin to a thick fog rolling in and muddying up our working memory. This working memory is like the RAM of our brain, vital for learning new things, understanding concepts, and solving problems. It’s responsible for holding and manipulating information over short periods.

But imagine trying to do complex maths in a foggy state with a working memory that’s running at half-speed…

Not fun, right? This is the situation many of our students find themselves in when they’re grappling with maths anxiety. 

This is the situation many of our students grapple with when dealing with maths anxiety. Their cognitive overload impacts their working memory and processing speed, hampering their ability to fully engage with maths material and perform effectively.

What’s more, this isn’t only about momentary anxiety during a test or a difficult homework problem. Chronic stress can lead to changes in the brain structure, specifically in the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus, an area vital for learning and memory. Over time, this can affect a student’s ability to acquire and retain new information. So, the effect of cortisol and chronic stress is a double whammy on the brain, with short- and long-term implications.

Why Maths is Uniquely Affected by Stress

You might wonder, “Why maths? Why don’t we see a similar anxiety phenomenon with English or history?” This is an intriguing question, and there’s a neuroscientific explanation behind it.

Unlike many other subjects, mathematics relies heavily on both working memory and executive functions, which are primarily managed by our brain’s prefrontal cortex. Think of working memory as a mental workspace where we manipulate numbers, symbols, and ideas to solve problems. On the other hand, the Executive Functions involve skills such as task-switching, cognitive flexibility, and goal-oriented behaviour – all critical for tackling complex mathematical problems. 

The crux of the matter is that the prefrontal cortex is the most affected part because it is so susceptible to stress and the associated cortisol response. This ‘cognitive fog’ disrupts our working memory and Executive Functions, making it far more challenging to perform tasks that we could usually handle with ease. 

Subjects like English or history, while certainly requiring cognition and memory, often involve different types of processing that are more distributed across various brain regions, including those less susceptible to the cortisol effects. Moreover, these subjects often emphasise narrative and contextual understanding over instant recall and precise calculation.

So, the relationship between mathematics, the prefrontal cortex, and stress create a unique vulnerability to anxiety. Understanding this relationship is the first step to mitigating maths anxiety and fostering a more conducive learning environment.

Building Resilience Against Maths Anxiety

The good news is that our brains are incredibly adaptable, and we can help our students to build resilience against maths anxiety. By creating a supportive, pressure-free learning environment and using effective strategies like ample thinking time and eliminating unnecessary timed elements, we can start to lift the fog of maths anxiety and enable our students to reach their full mathematical potential.

Remember, it’s not just about understanding numbers; it’s about understanding our students’ brains, too.

Strategies for supporting our students

So, what can we do to help our students? Here are a few ideas:

Slow Down the Clock: Timed tests? Major stress inducers. If we can, let’s ditch the stopwatch and give our students all the time they need to wrap their heads around problems.

Timed tests are a direct cause of maths anxiety

Pause for Thought: When we ask a question, let’s hold our horses before expecting an answer. Let’s give our students a few moments to process the question or concept. Trust me, it works wonders! 

press an imaginary pause button, give them enough processing time

Rethink ‘Speed’ in Maths: We’ve got to debunk this myth that being good at maths means being quick. We know that’s not true, and it’s high time our students did too. Speed doesn’t mean anything if you don’t understand the problem or get the answer wrong, right?

Switch Timed Tests with ‘Reasonable Allowance’: Timed tests are proven anxiety triggers. Instead, let our students use a times table grid or a calculator when learning a new method different from their number fact recall. If they fall at the first hurdle of tackling a question or practising a procedure because they need help to recall a fact, they will never get enough practice under their belts to become proficient. The practice in this situation is more important than the fact recall. Shift the focus. A little support can go a long way!

Learn More with Online Courses on Maths Anxiety

Now, if all of this makes you nod, thinking, “Yep, I need to know more about this!” you’re in luck. I’ve created two online courses: “Introduction to Maths Anxiety” and “Deeper Dive into Maths Anxiety”, that delve into this very topic of Maths Anxiety. They’re designed to arm you with strategies to make maths less of a ‘dreaded subject’ and more of a ‘fun adventure’ for your students.

Why not take a look? Check them out here https://www.jackpotmaths.com/shop/maths-anxiety-bundle. Trust me, it’ll be worth your while!

The Journey of Maths Discovery

To wrap it all up, the pressure of time in maths can be a real pain in the neck, contributing to maths anxiety and underperformance. But hey, we’re in this together, right? By tweaking our teaching styles a bit, we can make maths a whole lot more fun and way less stressful for our students. Because at the end of the day, maths isn’t supposed to be a race against the clock – it’s a journey of discovery and understanding, one step at a time. 

Want to take things further? 

If you want to have a chat with me about this or anything else, please click the link and book at https://app.10to8.com/book/sqtggnongdrtozgiif/1873918. I look forward to hearing from you 😊

#MathsAnxiety #Neuroscience #CortisolEffect #PrefrontalCortex #TimePressure #CognitiveOverload #TeachingMaths

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