Math anxiety is the state of discomfort around the performance of mathematical tasks. Does math anxiety cause poor performance in mathematics, or is it poor performance in mathematics that causes math anxiety? The question is important, because it affects the “treatment” that results. Should the focus be on improving students’ confidence, or their math ability?
A review in Frontiers in Psychology considers the evidence supporting the two models – The Deficit Theory, which claims that poor performance leads to high anxiety, or The Debilitating Anxiety Theory, which claims that anxiety reduces performance by affecting the pre-processing, processing, and retrieval of information. The review reveals that the evidence is conflicting –
- There is research to support the Deficit Theory, with the strongest evidence coming from longitudinal studies and studies of mathematical disabilities.
- Similarly, there is support for the Debilitating Anxiety Model from studies across all ages that have manipulated anxiety to reveal either a deterioration or improvement in performance.
- The paper considers that this is indicative of a Reciprocal Theory, where math anxiety and poor performance reinforce each other in a vicious cycle.
This in turn suggests that interventions to address math anxiety should target both the anxiety and mathematics performance.
Source (Open Access): Carey, E., Hill, F., Devine, A., & Szücs, D. (2016). The chicken or the egg? The direction of the relationship between mathematics anxiety and mathematics performance. Frontiers in Psychology, 6. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01987