Exploring the impact of Maths anxiety on students’ cognitive engagement

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Education (MEd)

First Supervisor/Advisor

Dr. Geoff Tennant

Second Supervisor/Advisor

Dr. Peter Kajoro


Institute for Educational Development, East Africa


Mathematics is internationally accepted as a core subject of great importance, with pressure on students and teachers to achieve as highly as possible. Against a concern in Kenya about low mathematics attainment, this study examines the phenomenon of ‘maths anxiety’, i.e. anxiety experienced when attempting to do, or thinking about mathematics, whether in the classroom or elsewhere. Key themes from the background literature include connections with physical, emotional and psychological disorientation, impairing the logical reasoning skills required for the high order thinking necessary for learning mathematics. A mixed methods case study design was used, set in one mixed secondary school, (non boarding), in Embu County, Kenya. Forty form two students filled out the Maths Anxiety Scale (Center for School Transformation, 2010). From this, 18 students with high maths anxiety were selected for classroom observation, of whom 8 participated in semi-structured interviews and a focus group discussion (FGD). A further FGD was conducted with 4 students observed to have low cognitive engagement. Both boys and girls stated that they experienced maths anxiety during maths lessons but girls reported higher levels than boys. The level of maths anxiety correlated negatively with students’ cognitive engagement. Disengagement from classroom tasks was largely attributed to fear and panic which are indicators of maths anxiety. Recommendations arising from this study include creation of safe classroom environments, continuous professional development for teachers and linking curriculum with current societal demands. To take this study further it would be necessary to examine the factors contributing to the development of maths anxiety and the potential outcomes of maths anxiety to children so as to give a well rounded understanding. Also future research may replicate this study on a larger scale with a more diverse sample and at varied settings for the purpose of comparison.

Key words maths anxiety, cognitive engagement and gender

This document is available in the relevant AKU library