Experiencing maths anxiety—nervousness and discomfort in relation to maths—impairs maths performance for some students, but new research shows that it’s linked with improved performance for others, at least to a degree. The findings are published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.
In two studies, researchers Zhe Wang of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Stephen Petrill of The Ohio State University, and colleagues found that a moderate level of maths anxiety was associated with high maths performance among students who reported high maths motivation—that is, among students who reported that they valued maths and embraced maths challenges. For those who are low in this kind of maths motivation, however, high maths anxiety appears to be linked with low maths performance.
“Our findings show that the negative association between maths anxiety and maths learning is not universal,” say Wang and Petrill. “Maths motivation can be an important buffer to the negative influence of maths anxiety.”
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 hypothesized that different underlying motivations for these two groups may have different consequences for maths learning behaviors and performance.
For the first study, the researchers looked at data from 262 pairs of same-sex twins. The children, 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 maths anxiety and maths 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 maths motivation, increases in maths 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.
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 moderate level of maths anxiety or challenge may actually prove efficacious.”
According to Wang and Petrill, the next step in this line of research will be to examine the real-time physiological changes that underlie the complex relationship between maths anxiety and maths achievement.
More information: Psychological Science, pss.sagepub.com/content/early/2015/10/30/0956797615602471.abstract
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