Experiencing nervousness and discomfort about mathematics can impair some pupils’ performance in the subject, but new research shows that moderate anxiety can be linked with improved performance for others. The study by a US and UK research team also found that girls tend to have higher maths anxiety than boys.
In two studies, researchers found that a moderate level of maths anxiety was associated with high maths performance among students who reported high math motivation: students who reported that they valued maths and embraced its challenges.
For those who are low in this kind of maths motivation, high maths anxiety appears to be linked with low maths performance.
Professor Yulia Kovas from the Department of Psychology at Goldsmiths was among the group of researchers led by Zhe Wang of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and Stephen Petrill (Ohio State University) to publish their findings in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, this week.
"Our findings show that the negative association between math anxiety and math learning is not universal," say Wang and Petrill. "Math motivation can be an important buffer to the negative influence of math anxiety."
Why are children so anxious about maths?
While some children might be anxious about maths because it is extremely difficult for them and they feel threatened by it, others might be anxious about maths because they want to perform well. The researchers hypothesised that the different underlying motivations for these two groups may have different consequences for math learning behaviours and performance.
For the first study, the researchers looked at data from 262 pairs of same-sex twins. The children, who were about 12 years old on average, completed measures of maths anxiety and maths motivation. They also completed six tasks aimed at measuring maths performance, tapping skills like representing numerical quantities nonverbally and spatially, calculating with fluency, and using quantitative reasoning in problem solving.
The results indicated that there were no differences in anxiety and motivation according to age, but they did show that girls tended to have higher maths anxiety than boys.
When the researchers investigated maths anxiety and maths motivation together, a complex pattern of results emerged. For children who reported low levels of motivation, increases in anxiety were associated with poorer performance.
For children who reported high maths motivation, the relationship between maths anxiety and performance resembled an inverted U shape: Performance increased with anxiety, reaching peak levels with moderate anxiety. As anxiety increased beyond this midpoint, maths performance decreased.
Study repeated on university students
To ensure that these results were robust, the researchers conducted a second study with 237 college students. Again, they found that maths anxiety was related to poor maths performance among students who reported low maths motivation, while students who reported high motivation showed the inverted-U relationship between anxiety and performance.
"These findings suggest that efforts that simply aim to decrease maths-anxiety level may not prove effective for all students," says Petrill. "Although maths anxiety is detrimental to some children in their maths learning, motivation may help overcome the detrimental effects of maths anxiety. In particular, for children highly motivated to better learn maths, a moderate level of maths anxiety or challenge may actually prove efficacious."
Professor Yulia Kovas, several of her Goldsmiths PhD students, and colleagues from Kings College London worked on this study with US partners as part of a series of studies conducted with international teams.
Professor Kovas concludes: “It is clear from this recent research is that the relationship between mathematical anxiety and performance may be moderated by motivation. As a next step in this research we are conducting a twin study at Goldsmiths, King’s College, Ohio State University and Tomsk State University to further understand the genetic and environmental underpinnings of these associations, as well as of their neural mechanisms.
“When a better understanding of these processes is achieved, we may be able to help students to deal with their anxiety in adaptive ways.”
'Is Math Anxiety Always Bad for Math Learning? The Role of Math Motivation' was published by Psychological Science on Wednesday 4 November.