Got a math problem?

by Marilyn Achiron
Editor, Directorate for Education and Skills

Some 37% of students in the Netherlands reported that they often worry that mathematics classes will be difficult for them. In Argentina, 80% of students reported the same worry. What is the percentage-point difference between the two countries in the proportion of students who worry that mathematics classes will be difficult for them?*

While reading the above mathematics problem, did you:

  1. start hyperventilating and repeat to yourself “I  can’t do this;
    I can’t do this; I can’t do this”
  2. grab your mouse with the intent of clicking off this page
  3. feel as though you have never encountered such a confusing
    jumble of words and numbers before
  4. all of the above?

    If you answered a, b, c or d, you’re in good company: on average, about one in three students feels anxious when confronted with a mathematics problem, and more than one in two students reported that they often worry that it will be difficult for them in mathematics classes. Those are alarming statistics – especially because PISA finds that greater anxiety towards mathematics is strongly related to lower scores in mathematics. As this month’s PISA in Focus reports, on average across OECD countries, mathematics anxiety is associated with a 34 score-point decline in mathematics performance – the equivalent of almost one year of school. In New Zealand, Norway and Poland, the decline associated with anxiety towards mathematics is even larger: at least 45 score points.

    More worrying still, in almost all countries and economies that participated in PISA 2012, girls reported greater anxiety towards mathematics than boys. Only in Jordan, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates did boys report greater anxiety than girls.

    PISA finds that students’ anxiety towards mathematics is not just about the subject, itself. Students are more anxious towards mathematics when their schoolmates get better marks than they do, on average. In Austria, Canada, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Liechtenstein, the Netherlands and Slovenia, students who attend schools where the average student performs better than they do in mathematics tend to be considerably more anxious towards the subject than students who earn similar marks in mathematics, but attend schools where the average student performs as well as they do or worse.

    So how can students learn to adopt a more Zen attitude towards mathematics? The answer may lie in their teachers. In 39 countries and economies, among students who performed equally well in mathematics, those students whose teachers consistently tell students how well they are doing in mathematics, give students feedback on their strengths and weaknesses in mathematics, and/or tell students what they need to do to improve in mathematics reported less anxiety towards math. Knowledge is power; and when staring down a mathematics problem, it can relieve stress too.

    * There is a 43 percentage-point difference between the Netherlands (which has one of the smallest proportions of students who worry that mathematics classes will be difficult for them) and Argentina (which has one of the largest proportions of these students).

    PISA 2012 Findings
    PISA in Focus No. 48: Does math make you anxious?
    PISA in Focus No.48 (French version)
    Full set of PISA in Focus
    PISA 2012 Results: Ready to Learn (Volume III) : Students’ Engagement, Drive and Self-Beliefs
    Photo credit: The Scream / @Wikimédia

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