Addressing Mathematics Anxiety through developing resilience: building on Self Determination Theory

Johnston-Wilder, Susan; Lee, Clare and Mackrell, Kate (2021). Addressing Mathematics Anxiety through developing resilience: building on Self Determination Theory. Creative Education, 12(9) pp. 2098–2115.



Mathematics-specific anxiety is anxiety that impedes mathematical thinking and progress, and creates distress for many learners, or at the least a tendency to avoid mathematical thinking. Such anxiety is prevalent. The importance of mathematics to economic recovery is well-established; in order to meet the need for mathematics, the high levels of mathematics anxiety that stand in the way of individual mathematical progress should be addressed. Using a case study involving an adult learner, we use self-determination theory (Ryan and Deci, 2017) to explain why mathematical resilience (Lee and Johnston-Wilder, 2017) is a concept which can work against anxiety and for a positive stance towards mathematics. Work on mathematical resilience demonstrates that well-informed, subject-specific interventions can help people manage emotions, including anxiety, and improve progress and uptake in mathematics. We illustrate ways in which the focus of self-determination theory on meeting basic psychological needs (autonomy, competence and relatedness), to enhance wellbeing and prevent harm, provides grounding for much good practice in mathematics education and specifically for work in mathematical resilience. The tools of mathematical resilience go beyond what is currently proposed in SDT research. We illustrate ways in which these tools can specifically facilitate learners’ emotion regulation, which we propose is integral to mathematical learning competence, leading to greater mathematical wellbeing, learning, and release from mathematics anxiety.

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