Math anxiety: who has it, why it develops, and how to guard against it

Math anxiety: who has it, why it develops, and how to guard against it

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  • Math anxiety: who has it, why it develops, and how to guard against it


  • Erin A. Maloney and Sian L. Beilock (2012) 

Journal and DOI 

Previous Research  

  • Basic math skills are fundamental to success in school and everyday life. But many people experience apprehension and fear when it comes to numerical information. For some people, the thought of math alone is enough to cause performance inhibiting anxiety.

What did we ask? 

  • What are some antecedents of math anxiety?
  • How can they be managed to increase overall math performance and positive math-attitudes?

How did we do it? 

  • We analyzed findings from cognitive psychology, educational psychology, and neuroscience to determine how both social influences and cognitive predispositions play a role in the onset of math anxiety in elementary school students.

What did we find? 

  • Math anxiety present at the beginning of formal schooling, which is much younger than previously assumed. The development of math anxiety is likely tied to both social factors (e.g., teacher’s anxiety about own ability) and a student’s own basic numerical and spatial competencies. Notably, many of the techniques employed to reduce the link between math anxiety and math performance involve addressing the anxiety rather than training math itself.

Take away Message 

  • By better understanding the antecedents of math anxiety, we can increase math confidence and ability from a young age.

What can you do?

  • Build a foundation of basic numerical and spatial processing skills early on to increase success later.
  • Develop healthy attitudes around math by practicing positive self-talk and interpreting difficult situations as challenges that you can handle (rather than as threats that you cannot handle). This can lead to decreased math anxiety and increased math performance.

Brought to you by Dr. Erin Maloney’s Cognition and Emotion Lab at the University of Ottawa. 

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