Math Fears Subtract from Memory, Learning

By Bower, B. | Science News, June 30, 2001 | Go to article overview

Math Fears Subtract from Memory, Learning


Bower, B., Science News


By about age 12, students who feel threatened by mathematics start to avoid math courses, do poorly in the few math classes they do take, and earn low scores on math-achievement tests. Some scientists have theorized that kids having little math aptitude in the first place justifiably dread grappling with numbers.

That conclusion doesn't add up, at least for college students, according to a study in the June JOURNAL OF EXPERIMENTAL PSYCHOLOGY: GENERAL. On the contrary, people's intrusive worries about math temporarily disrupt mental processes needed for doing arithmetic and drag down math competence, report Mark H. Ashcraft and Elizabeth P. Kirk, both psychologists at Cleveland (Ohio) State University.

Math anxiety exerts this effect by making it difficult to hold new information in mind while simultaneously manipulating it, the researchers hold. Psychologists regard this capacity, known as working memory, as crucial for dealing with numbers.

"Math anxiety soaks up working-memory resources and makes it harder to learn mathematics, probably beginning in middle school," Ashcraft says.

He and Kirk ran three experiments, each with 50 to 60 college students. Experiments included roughly equal numbers of male and female students who cited low, moderate, or high levels of math anxiety on a questionnaire.

In the first experiment, Ashcraft and Kirk found that students with a high level of math anxiety enrolled in fewer math courses, received lower math grades, and scored worse on working-memory tests involving numbers than their peers did.

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