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  5. Exploring the extent of maths anxiety within the STEM Faculty at The Open University

Exploring the extent of maths anxiety within the STEM Faculty at The Open University

Project leader(s): 
Sue Pawley

Maths Anxiety can be described as “an emotion that blocks a person’s reasoning ability when confronted with a mathematical situation” [Spicer 2004], in an extreme form, “when confronted with a math problem, the sufferer has sweaty palms, is nauseous, has heart palpitations, and experiences paralysis of thought” [Krantz 1999].  Unsurprisingly, students with maths anxiety, frequently react with avoidance techniques such as delaying study or not studying regularly, putting them at high risk of failure or withdrawal, impacting progression and retention rates.  Whilst maths anxiety has been recognised by academics for over half a century, little work has been done within the Open University to establish its extent within our population, how it is affected by distance learning and what techniques can be used to mitigate its effects.

This project is intended to lay the foundations for future projects focusing on support mechanisms, by assessing the scale of the problem investigating possible causes and helping strategies amongst students on core introductory level one modules across STEM (MU123, MST124, T192, TM111, U101, U116, S111, SDK100).  We plan to use the well-established maths anxiety scale (MAS) [Betz 1978] to measure levels of maths anxiety in our students at an early stage in their studies.   We will also include additional questions to investigate factors specific to distance learning.  Next, we will conduct in-depth semi-structured interviews to further investigate specific issues and explore how these might be addressed and supported. The interviews would include questions about previous experiences with learning mathematics, attitudes towards mathematics, and any teaching methods or personal strategies that have been particularly helpful or unhelpful. Volunteers for interview would be sought alongside the surveys and interviewees chosen to represent a range of personal characteristics (e.g. age, gender, ethnicity, disability), subject areas and maths anxiety scores. 

The anticipated outcomes are to measure the extent of maths anxiety in students starting STEM qualifications and the differences between subject specialism and aspects of student profile.  We anticipate future projects to look at more practical methods for addressing maths anxiety and the creation of a faculty wide program for supporting such students, which will feed into additional projects on mental health issues in general.

Sue Pawley and Sally Organ poster (PPT)