Math anxiety refers to intense feelings of apprehension in the face of having to solve mathematical problems and can have important consequences both academically and professionally. Indeed, many basic life skills, like setting and sticking to a budget or filing one’s taxes are, for many people, an endeavor fraught with anxiety and discomfort.
The relation between math anxiety and proficiency in math, however, is not fully understood, nor why some individuals suffer from math anxiety and others do not. It was with these objectives in mind that a team of researchers from the University of Florence, Italy, devised an experiment to examine the relation between non-numerical quantity perception, math skills, and math anxiety. Their results appeared in Frontiers in Psychology.
The study included 88 university students divided into two groups depending on their level of math anxiety: a low math anxiety (LMA) group and a high math anxiety (HMA) group. Both groups completed a Mathematics Prerequisites for Psychometrics test, the Abbreviated Math Anxiety Scale, a Test Anxiety Inventory (to disentangle math anxiety from general test anxiety), and underwent a series of non-numerical mathematical tests.
Numerosity (relative quantity) and size discrimination tasks both test non-numerical mathematical skills; namely, the capacity to make mathematical judgements not based on symbols or numbers. Estimating which of two elements (e.g., black or white dots) are more numerous (without counting them), which of two rings is larger, or which of a series of dots has moved, all represent basic non-numerical mathematical skills.
The results of the study are intriguing in that they highlighted a distinct difference between LMA and HMA groups in regards to the relation between math anxiety and mathematical proficiency. Namely, the relation between math anxiety and proficiency was mediated by “number sense” (as measured by the aforementioned tests) in high-anxiety individuals, but not in low-anxiety individuals.
Interestingly, actual proficiency in number sense did not differ between the two groups. This means that, while both LMA and HMA were roughly equivalent in their overall ability to make judgements about relative quantities, this skill was determinant of math proficiency only in the most anxious individuals. Furthermore, the relation was limited to numerosity only, and not relative size or tracking movement, underscoring the importance of this cognitive element.
The authors explain their findings theoretically by suggesting that poor number sense may “increase the probability of going through an initial failure and negative learning experience” when learning math at a young age.
Many individuals suffer from math anxiety, which can have important consequences both laterally, as many school subjects rely on basic or even complex mathematical proficiency, and later in life, given the frequency with which mathematical demands can crop up in one’s daily life.
Understanding the cognitive precursors to math anxiety will help educators develop earlier and more effective interventions, and may point to specific exercises to help these students catch up with their peers and thus avoid math anxiety later on.
The study, “Math Anxiety Mediates the Link Between Number Sense and Math Achievements in High Math Anxiety Young Adults“, was authored by Paula Andrea Maldonado Moscoso, Giovanni Anobile, Caterina Primi, and Roberto Arrighi.