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Abstract

Math anxiety is a specific tension, apprehension, or fear surrounding math. Math anxiety is negatively related to math performance, such that those who are highly math anxious show poorer performance in basic numerical processing and perform worse on complex math problems as compared to those who are low in math anxiety. Math anxiety is a trait anxiety, in that some individuals have higher levels of persistent anxiety overall than others, which in this case is specifically related to math. Reductions in working memory,, a limited-capacity executive resource used for the immediate storage, integration and manipulation of information, are seen in math anxious individuals when solving math problems. It is not just trait anxiety that relates to performance. Situational anxiety induced from the environment has also been shown to negatively impact math problem-solving due to the effects of anxiety on working memory resources. Importantly, math problems are often solved in high pressure environments where an individual needs to perform at her best. Little research has explored how situational anxiety induced from the environment may interact with trait math anxiety to impact math performance. In experiment 1 we demonstrate that undergraduate adults who are high in math anxiety show reductions in math performance on high cognitively demanding problems in a low pressure situation, and math performance does not decline further with situational pressure. In experiment 2 we demonstrate that children who are high in math anxiety and high in WM show declines in math performance if they report high levels of state anxiety following a math interaction they completed with their parent. Children who are high in math anxiety and high in WM who report low levels of state anxiety following a math interaction perform similarly to those children who are high in WM and low in math anxiety. Similar effects are seen in high WM children if parents report high levels of state anxiety and math anxiety, though the effects are small and not significant. In experiment 2 we also demonstrate that parents show declines in their own math performance following a math interaction with their child that are modified by the parent’s math anxiety and by the situational pressure induced by the interaction. Parent’s in the low pressure condition with high math anxiety showed declines in math performance as compared to parents with low math anxiety. In the pressure condition, low math anxious parents perform similarly to high math anxious parents in the low pressure condition. High math anxious parents in the pressure condition show the lowest math performance. Our results in the first experiment do not suggest a compound effect of trait math anxiety and state anxiety/pressure on performance, but this may be due to increased pressure they feel in what we consider a ‘low pressure’ condition. Our results in experiment 2 demonstrate a compound effect of math anxiety and state anxiety/pressure on math performance in both children and parents. Importantly, when highly math anxious children report low levels of state anxiety following a math interaction completed either under low or high pressure, they perform similarly to low math anxious children. When high math anxious parents report low levels of state anxiety following a low pressure situation, they also performed similarly to low math anxious parents, though this is not significant. Ultimately, the negative effects of math anxiety on math performance may be alleviated if an individual’s reported perceptions of their anxiety are low. In order to help improve math performance for math anxious individuals, interventions may focus on off-loading an individual’s worries in order to reduce perceptions of anxiety or may focus on helping math anxious individuals reinterpret their anxiety prior to performing math. This may be particularly beneficial for children who are highly math anxious.

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