Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Math Motivation Moderates the Effect of Math Anxiety on Math Performance

Mathematics is perhaps the most-feared school subject across education, from students in elementary schools to universities. There is a wealth of research providing evidence that math performance and math learning have negative relationships with math anxiety. Unfortunately, the more anxious one becomes about their math performance, the worse they will be at learning and performing math skills.

Math anxiety contributes to a performance gap in STEM fields for minority students and women, who report more anxiety in math-related fields than their White male counterparts. But is it really as simple as, "If math makes you nervous, you won't be as good at it"? Recent research indicates that that's not the whole story.

A 2015 study, researchers, brings some new evidence to the discussion. The authors underscore that, yes, past research has shown that math anxiety diminishes math cognition, stunting both math performance and learning. However, anxiety tends to have a curvilinear relationship with complex cognitive tasks in general, such that more anxiety correlates with increased performance, but after a certain point, increased anxiety begins to correlate with decreased performance. When this relationship is graphed it is shaped like an upside-down U (similar to a parabola, as a matter of fact).

What researchers found was that math anxiety and math performance had a curvilinear (inverse-U) relationship, but only when the students had a high intrinsic math motivation. Those with low math motivation showed the typical negative linear relationship between math anxiety and performance, that is, as anxiety increased, performance decreased. The moderating effect of motivation on the relationship between math anxiety and performance was found for both children and adult college students.

This research demonstrates that there is a a complex interaction of emotional and cognitive factors that impact learning and performance. For math, it seems, anxiety can be harnessed as a useful learning tool for those with high intrinsic motivation. Those with low intrinsic motivation around math are best to avoid panic.

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