We typically think of math anxiety as universally bad for math learning, but a team of scholars have now discovered that the relationship between math anxiety and learning is much more complex. Based on the findings in animal learning and cognitive psychology, these researchers hypothesized that there might be an “inverted-U relation between math anxiety and math performance in students more intrinsically motivated in math, whereas a negative linear relation [would be] observed in those least motivated.”

In their paper just published in Psychological Science, Zhe Wang, Sarah Lukowski, Sara Hart, Ian Lyons, Lee Thompson, Yulia Kovas, Michèle Mazzocco, Robert Plomin, and Stephen Petrill sought to test whether this relationship could be uncovered in two independent samples. These samples were 262 pairs of same-sex twins from the Western Reserve Reading and Math Projects and 237 undergraduates from The Ohio State University.

In both populations, it was found that only in students with high math motivation did moderate math anxiety increase performance. But for students with lower math motivation, higher math anxiety consistently decreased performance. In other words, math motivation is an important factor to take into account when considering the relationship between math anxiety and math learning.

The researchers concluded:

“…math anxiety may not universally impair the development of math abilities…and clinical efforts that simply aim to decrease math-anxiety levels may not prove effective for all students. The current findings suggest that moderate levels of math anxiety seem to be beneficial rather than detrimental to intrinsically motivated children. Therefore, it may be better for some students to maintain moderate levels of math anxiety, potentially through teachers making sure that learning and testing materials are moderately challenging. A combination of moderate math anxiety and high intrinsic motivation may help drive students to work harder in math learning and enjoy the fun in this process at the same time. These findings support math-education efforts to identify appropriate challenge levels for students by taking into account students’ math-related abilities and affect.”

Perhaps just like in sports or other domains, some level of anxiety may not always be such a bad thing.

© 2015 by Jonathan Wai

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