Hoping to Grow a Top Banana: Reducing Maths Anxiety and Promoting a Positive Maths Self Concept

By Dr Julie Pepper

Thank you for reading my first ever go at a blog post! While my dad was an accountant and liked maths, I grew up knowing my mum found maths “scary.” I think her experiences at school gave her a low maths self-concept as well as maths anxiety. Even though I was in the middle set in year 8 at school, I never considered that maths wasn’t for me as my parents instilled in me a belief that it was. So where does the name “Top Banana” come from? I went to a sixth form where the A level maths class all dropped out, but I was so lucky as my amazing maths teacher, called Jane Steele, remained. Because the school didn’t offer further maths Jane taught me in lunch breaks. I was so incredibly fortunate to have Jane, learning maths laughing with Annie Lennox songs playing in the background and eating oranges. Jane used to say or write “top banana” to correct answers. Over 20 years after teaching me Jane was still just as amazing as a maths teacher and person, but heartbreakingly passed away in 2022. I think she’d like the idea of a silly name for a project like this as she approached maths with such enthusiasm and fun.

I did my maths degree here at Exeter (where Jane also went) before doing my MSc and PhD in psychology. Quite a few research fellowships (one of which was on aspirations and gave me the chance to learn from Professor Jacque Eccles who I am lucky is still happy to support this incubator project), 3 children and a return to academia as a lecturer later, my ambition is to help Exeter students (as well as my children) have a high maths self-concept and low (or no) maths anxiety.

We are so fortunate at Exeter to have so many amazing people, resources, and projects but sometimes it can be difficult to find out who is doing what. This is the reason, that embarking on the task of tackling maths anxiety for degree apprentices, I wanted to create a network (for which I am grateful for the advice and support of Professor Rachael Johnstone, Sarah Tudor, Professor Nicky King, Professor Beverly Hawkins, Dr Layal Hakim and Professor Alison Truelove) to share best practice in promoting positive maths self-concept and prevent maths anxiety.

Being part of this network doesn’t have to mean a large time commitment or extra work on top of overloaded schedules. It just means people, who like me, are interested in maths self-concept and anxiety could look up what you have done. If you are reading this and would be interested in joining, please do get in touch (please email j.s.a.pepper@exeter.ac.uk). Reaching out beyond Exeter, I have also been fortunate to join MARG (the maths anxiety research group) run by Professor Thomas Hunt in Derby as an associate member.

I was intrigued to try a design thinking technique like empathy mapping where you imagine how your students feel, what they think, say and do. You can do a slightly more complex version than this, but I liked this simpler version. The psychology researcher in me wanted though to see what the students said/felt/did/thought as well as what we imagined for them. The MURAL below shows the way in which 20 students (with blue being master’s level apprentices, green undergraduate apprentices and pink undergraduates) reported to feel/say/think and do when it comes to maths in their courses or everyday life.

Workshop Mural

As might be expected there was a range of positive to negative answers. The literature that you can have a positive maths self-concept, but negative feelings played out for some. One thing that struck me was the answers about working alone, as during my own maths degree I spent many hours working in small groups solving problems and chatting through our ways of working. Research suggests that interventions around mindfulness, growth mindset, working in pairs/teams and building mathematical resilience could help to increase maths self-concept and decrease maths anxiety for university students. The interventions interrelate and some, like working in groups or teams, could be “quick wins” to build into practice.

When I had my first hybrid network lunch (to which I am extremely grateful to Dr Alison Hill, Dr Kat Ashbullby, Dr Victoria Wong, Dr Michelle Trottier and Karen Squire) they came up with a very similar set of answers for the empathy map. The only notable difference was we thought the students might think it was a waste of time or they didn’t need to but looking back at the students’ answers no one said this.

We then moved onto Systems Thinking using @lego serious play or visualisations to imagine what the barriers and enablers students having maths anxiety or low maths self-concept are before discussing potential ways to overcome the barriers or the conditions that create them. This way of approaching Systems Thinking seems to fit with the way the RISE programme talks about it and it is relevant when thinking about apprentices versus students on conventional courses as the “systems” they operate in run differently. Barriers we came up with were wide-ranging including childhood experiences, social comparison, a fixed mindset, not taking it step by step, the type of course and a lack of time.

Moving forward, I am hoping to grow the network, set future meetings, create a webpage to share best practice and explore any potential collaborative pedagogy projects for members of the network who would like to do so.

I was fortunate to also receive an Incubator Project grant with Dr Kat Ashbullby (with Dr Inma Adarves-Yorno and Karen Squire as advisors, with the support of Sarah Tudor and Professor Rachael Johnstone).  The project is entitled, Top banana transformed by mindfulness & resilience?: A pilot project aiming to design and evaluate 3 mindfulness and resilience sessions (and ELE content) to boost maths self-concept and reduce maths anxiety for Exeter University students, and will be the focus of a future blog post!

Discovery Grants 2022-23

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The University of Exeter’s Education Incubator scheme. Promoting pedagogic innovation and collaboration with an aim to enhance learning across the University and beyond.

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