The term math anxiety doesn’t call to mind a person who excels at the subject. But students who perform extremely well on math exams can suffer from such anxiety, which has a surprisingly powerful effect on just how well they do.
A study led by researchers at the University of Chicago finds that the better a student does at math, the more strongly his or her performance will be dragged down by anxiety. And that relationship between anxiety and achievement holds not just in the United States, but around the world, according to the authors.
“Math anxiety is disrupting these students’ ability to fulfill their potential,” said Alana Foley, a postdoctoral fellow in psychology and co-author of the study published in the February issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science. “Even though they’re still doing better than kids who are overall performing lower, they’re not performing as well as they could because they have math anxiety.”
The study’s authors considered the findings of 40 different laboratory experiments combined with analysis of data collected by the Program in International Student Assessments, which administers standardized math tests to 15-year-old students around the world. The lab studies provide insight into the test results, and the test results help contextualize the lab studies, the authors said.
“The effects of anxiety are true, even in countries that we think of as being really high-performing in math—Singapore, Korea, Japan, China,” said co-author Julianne Herts, a doctoral student in psychology. “Even students in those countries who perform very well in math and score very high on tests still show this relation. That’s something we didn’t know would be the case.”
Behavioral and neuroimaging studies reviewed by the researchers suggest why anxiety has such a powerful and universal impact. To do math, humans need to be able to hold information in their minds and manipulate and remember it.
“The students who normally do really well have a large capacity to hold information in their minds and use advanced strategies that require a lot of cognitive resources,” Foley said. “But when they’re math anxious, the anxiety and the emotion system of the brain interfere with their ability to hold onto information, so they end up performing much worse than they otherwise would if they weren’t anxious.”