Reducing anxiety about learning maths in a workplace setting

Written by Steph Taylor, an assessor with Acorn Training.

In my new role working with learners on workplace apprenticeships, I observed how they often ‘shy away’ from doing their Functional Skills mathematics. Some will make every excuse they can possibly think of to avoid doing the tasks that need to be completed.

My research aim is to develop new maths teaching, and learning techniques and resources tailored for learners’ particular workplaces. My learners vary from customer service personnel to practical workshop specialists across a wide variety of businesses in Derby, Nottingham and Birmingham. All my learners are training in management, team leading, customer service or business administration, and it is essential their maths skills are up to standard.

By developing maths resources for particular workplace specialisms, the aim is for apprentices to share these with colleagues. Specialisms include: Industry, security industry, manufacturing companies and service centres. My research methodology is a mixed method approach, including a learner survey and case studies of individual learners who have a fear of maths.


Reducing the scope for shying away from maths

While my research is still ongoing, I’ve made a number of observations about what works in teaching Functional Skills maths in the workplace. One of the most effective approaches, but which can be easily overlooked, has been to ensure that I allocate specific and adequate time to work with learners on their maths. This is so important as it makes the learner face up to, and confront, their weaknesses. It reduces the scope for shying away from maths.

By setting aside adequate time, I’ve been able to go back to absolute basics and gradually work through each topic. This approach can help trainers get to the bottom of deep-seated and long-standing anxieties over maths, many of which are related to gaps in basic knowledge. Feedback from my learners on this back-to-basics approach has been positive.

One said: “It wasn’t so bad after all. I’ve always avoided maths, but now I have more confidence.” I have achieved good results using images, diagrams and practical tasks to demonstrate mathematics problems. Many of my students relate very well to the practice side of maths, especially if it is related to their jobs and workplaces.


Creating calm teaching and learning environments

While many workplace learners say they do not use maths in their everyday work, I’ve found this is not really true and that they use it in many different ways, often without realising. Again, feedback from my learners has been encouraging. One told me: “I never realised how much maths was actually embedded in my work.” Other findings to emerge from my research include the importance of creating calm teaching and learning environments in busy workplaces.

These oases of learning have helped learners feel more comfortable with their learning, encouraging them to work through areas where they are not so strong. Another key point is the importance of being flexible and understanding. I’m sure most workplace tutors understand the importance of this, but I’ve found there is a limit and that you also need to keep busy workplace learners on task.

As for my professional support, I’ve drawn on the resources and ideas offered by bodies such as the Association of Teachers of Mathematics (ATM) and the National Centre for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics (NCETM). There is more work to be done as I want to continue with the project and try out further resources and techniques to encourage a better response to Functional Skills maths in the future. But the interim findings have been encouraging, indicating that there is a range of different and effective strategies that can be employed specifically in workplace settings.


Steph Taylor is an assessor with Acorn Training (Stoke-on-Trent). She has previously taught GCSE English in secondary schools and spent 11 years in offender learning as a tutor and a manager. Her research was one of the three winners of the 2017 Researching Numeracy Teaching and Learning competition run by SET. Steph is a Member of SET.

This article first appeared in InTuition 23, spring 2016.