When Math Anxiety Is Good

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If you ever want to make an anxious person exasperated, there are a few key phrases you can tell them: “don’t worry,” “just don’t think about it” and “focus on something else.” These do more than state the obvious; they reinforce the concept that an anxious brain is somehow miswired, encouraging the person to not only be worried about the problem at hand but also to stress because they are not capable of focusing on anything else.

But for us worrywarts there is some good news out there, particularly in the realm of mathematics.  A new piece of research has found that a moderate level of math anxiety can improve results if the anxious child is motivated to do well.

The researchers from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and The Ohio State University undertook two studies to gain a comprehensive set of data on math anxiety. The first study analyzed 262 pairs of same-sex twins. The children, whose average age was 12, answered questions about math anxiety and motivations and completed six tasks that measured their math performance.

They found that the anxious children who weren’t motivated to succeed in math had poorer performances. However, those children who were keen to succeed in math had results that were improved with math anxiety. Those who had moderate levels of anxiety, as well as a high math motivation, had the best results. Those whose anxiety levels were greater than moderate tended to get lower marks, even if they were motivated.

“Our findings show that the negative association between math anxiety and math learning is not universal,” the authors said. “Math motivation can be an important buffer against the negative influence of math anxiety.”

The authors added a second study to their research, this time examining 237 college-age students. The relationship between math motivation, math anxiety and results remained the same.

“These findings suggest that efforts that simply aim to decrease math-anxiety level may not prove effective for all students,” the authors wrote. “Although math anxiety is detrimental to some children in their math learning, motivation may help overcome the detrimental effects of math anxiety.  In particular, for children highly motivated to better learn moderate math level of math anxiety or challenge may prove efficacious.”

So there you go. Do not tell your math-anxious children not to stress. Tell them to be motivated and that they can worry, but only in moderation.



Marina Gomer is a journalist and mother of one.  She lives with her family in Sydney, Australia.