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Maths trauma and earthquakes

Trauma is a deeply distressing or disturbing experience. Many people in my home town of Christchurch still suffer from post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of our earthquakes five or so years ago. I know I will never be the same again. The trauma began with the original terrifying experience of having the ground move in a way you never thought was even possible. It was perpetuated by over eighteen months of never knowing when the next earthquake (deceptively called aftershock) would hit. And the trauma still continues for many as they struggle to sort out their homes, and jobs, and their families. (Even now the thought of earthquakes can bring me to tears, and heavy machinery undertaking drainage work happening in my street is not helping.)
People might question if the impact of bad maths experiences can really be likened to the trauma people experience as the result of a series of earthquakes. I listened recently to a webinar about maths trauma, hosted by Global Math Department, and presented by Dr Kasi Allen. Math Trauma: Healing Our Classrooms, Our Students, and Our Discipline The webinar occurred in April 2016, but thanks to the amazing global maths community, it is still available and has had over 1000 views. Dr Allen calls herself a “math activist who studies math trauma and promotes teaching mathematics for social justice”. I see myself and the work we do at Creative Maths in that vein also.


Three students engrossed in a maths event

I have reproduced a few of the ideas in the webinar, but would recommend visiting it yourself to get the full value.
Dr Allen’s proposition is that what is commonly called math anxiety is probably better described as math trauma. She teaches preservice elementary school teachers. A watershed experience has been seeing people bolt from the room in tears, simply looking at the syllabus at the start of a maths course.

Too many people think they are not maths people

I am frequently told by people that they do not have a maths brain, could never learn maths, that they are not a maths person. I have had middle-aged women tell me of formative experiences that happened over fifty years previously that have shaped their relationship with mathematics. Recently I asked my Facebook friends both mathematically inclined and not so mathematically inclined about how they picture numbers. Time and again their responses included the statement that they are not good at maths.

Maths anxiety and trauma

The term “math anxiety” dates back to the 1950s and is still used today. There are decades of research into how math anxiety disproportionately affects students who are female, low income and non-white. What Dr Allen (and I)  found disturbing was that among college students, undergraduate education majors are the most maths anxious, both in terms of number and severity. These are the people who are entrusted with teaching mathematics to the next generation. Primary school teachers too often have an unhealthy relationship with maths – that is NOT their fault. They were taught in a way that did not work for them and they carry the burden with them.
Dr Allen suggests that maths trauma is a more fitting description than maths anxiety. Jo Boaler talks about people as having been maths traumatised. The negative experiences people have with mathematics, are described as painful and damaging. Traumatic events can be grounded in everyday life, and do not need to come from one catastrophic event. It is the subjective response that matters. Dr Allen gives the following definition:

“Math trauma stems from an event, a series of events, or a set of circumstances experienced by an individual as harmful or threatened such that there are lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and well-being in the perceived presence of mathematics.”

Healing teachers and students from maths trauma

Dr Allen has suggestions to help heal maths trauma. One suggestion is to acknowledge past negative experiences and their effects. We can listen and express sympathy and even apologise for the harm people have felt. We can provide opportunities for students to tell their maths stories. We can help them nurture their mathematics identities.
We also need to work on prevention of maths trauma. Classroom culture is important. Students need to feel safe and brave and they need to move. And we need to end traumatizing traditions. I have reproduced a screen shot of the slide about ending traumatizing traditions. Timed tests in mathematics have to stop. Now. Forever.
The question is, how do we (Creative Maths) help teachers to recover from maths trauma, so they can feel the fun and excitement that can be had in maths? Teachers matter for themselves, as well as for the good they can do their students. Maths educators need to be part of the solution and part of the prevention – to be maths activists. People are not born with maths trauma and it does not exist in all cultures. We need to do better.

Call for comment

So here is my question. Do you or someone you know suffer from maths trauma? Let me tell you now – it is not your fault. It is not their fault.
What needs to happen for you to feel better about maths? What needs to happen so that maths trauma can be eliminated from our schooling?


  1. […] Please comment on the article here: Learn and Teach Statistics and Operations Research […]

  2. mjpledger says:

    There has to be a balance in “grouping by ability/tracking”. Obviously a “cabbage class” is not a great idea but neither is boring the bright kids into mediocrity and disinterest.

  3. Cathy says:

    I can absolutely relate to this article, I was a victim of the general conviction that there are people that ‘are good in maths’ and those who are not. That’s why I tried to avoid mathematics as much as possible in high school. Much later in my Bachelor and Master, I discovered that mathematics and statistics are just a matter of exercising (and actually not as scary as commonly taught) and I discovered my passion for them! It is a pity that we don’t get this message from primary school on!

    • Dr Nic says:

      Hi Cathy
      Thank you for your comments. You are so NOT alone. And unfortunately avoiding mathematics can limit opportunities later on. Well done for exercising! One of the things we emphasise to the children is that Mathematicians make mistakes and learn.

  4. Geoffrey Brent says:

    Good video on “math anxiety” here:

  5. Nikki says:

    This statement was probably the most attention-grabbing and intriguing to me: “Timed tests in mathematics have to stop. Now. Forever.”
    I have a few questions that would be great to get commentary on, if possible. My first thought was, “what does that look like?” Do you give the students a test where you give them as much time as they need, even if that’s 4 hours, when the vast majority of student should and can complete it in 2? Is that really feasible when considering the resources and time needed to facilitate that (I have cohorts of up to 500 students a year; we have very restricted access to timetabling venues that can hold that many students). I also wonder if this is, in some ways, doing a disservice to the student, as once they reach the workforce, they will have many deadlines, time pressures, need to recall information under pressure etc. For these reasons, I’m not sure this is a wise suggestion.
    I should also say that (despite the preceding paragraph listing some of my reservations), I can also see the merits to this approach. I often have students come see me, and they express a sense of frustration, because they felt they knew and understood the content, but were stressed/under pressure, and didn’t feel they had enough time to complete the exam. Some of these students do well in assignments (where they have a week to complete the assignment in an open book way), but completely “bomb” in exams.
    My background: I teach a first year uni maths and statistics course to students in Health fields. Also, my university has now made it *mandatory* that all final exams are at most 2 hours long, regardless of their weighting and level of content.

    • Dr Nic says:

      Hi Nikki
      Sorry to take so long to answer. Some great thoughts – and thanks for reading and commenting!
      When I wrote about timed tests, I was mainly meaning the high pressure timed tests on basic facts and multiplication tables, that are used in primary/elementary school. These have fluency as their aim, but research has shown that they only work towards a rather narrow view of fluency as speed, and that they harm people’s views of mathematics. But we also need to rethink exams at higher levels.
      I too have taught first year uni maths and stats courses, but to students in commerce fields. For many of my students English was not their native language, so there were issues of comprehending the questions before even beginning to answer them. We endeavoured to make our tests so that just about anyone could finish them in time. I also set up a mastery learning type blended course with online testing, and the students had close to unlimited time. (The tests took between 5 minutes and an hour, and the testing sessions were two hours long).
      So much about exams is so artificial, that I don’t think there is much in them that compares with “real life”. To start with your students probably use calculators, when in any office they are far more likely to use a spreadsheet or phone. Many exams are “closed book” so students have to rely on memory, whereas most people have access to the internet almost all the time, to clarify meanings, formulas etc.

  6. Kim Hansson says:

    Wow, I came across your blog randomly and I am so thankful to find this type of content! This is exactly what I needed. I am always anxious and keep postponing my maths related subjects (chemistry & physics) in my degree as I never felt that I was good at maths throughout primary and high school. I now try to learn a little everyday to gain my confidence.

    • Dr Nic says:

      Hi Kim
      Thanks for reading and commenting. Please know that your maths anxiety is not your fault. And that there are many many people like you. I have found that adults who learn maths later pick it up well, and whatever happened in their earlier maths learning experiences can be replaced with success and enjoyment.
      Good luck and just keep trying.

  7. […] also introduced the idea of maths trauma, that I wrote about in a previous post, and explained that preservice elementary school teachers have been found to have the highest rate […]

  8. […] also introduced the idea of maths trauma, that I wrote about in a previous post, and explained that preservice elementary school teachers have been found to have the highest rate […]

  9. […] Fluency without fear by Jo Boaler. Read this about Maths trauma. Do not add to the students’ feelings of inadequacy. One possibility if you wish to give a […]

  10. Christo says:

    I was never caught anything past decimals. Because I never passed pre algebra, I simply wasn’t taught any math afterwards. I’m learning disabled and never passed the required math exam to graduate high school. I’m now 34 and must take an assessment math test to enroll in college. I can’t understand anything in the free sample test they provided. All the learning resources I’ve been provided makes my anxiety spike and…I just don’t know!

    • Dr Nic says:

      Hi Christo
      I’m so sorry to hear that. It is so frustrating when people get limited like that. It seems that a personal tutor would really help. Adults can learn maths well even if they had trouble as children.

  11. […] perceived presence of mathematics,” Kasi Allen, PhD, a math activist (yes, math activist), tells Creative Maths. This is why the dreaded timed division tests of your youth have literally scarred you […]

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