The Impact of Mathematics Anxiety on Primary School Children’s Working Memory

Marcus Witt


While there is little doubt that there is a connection between mathematics anxiety and poor mathematical performance, the direction and nature of this connection is less clear. Some researchers (e.g. Ma and Xu, 2004) have contended that poor mathematical performance directly causes mathematics anxiety. Others see a more complex relationship in which mathematics anxiety may, in part at least, cause poor mathematical performance. One possible explanation for the latter view is that mathematics anxiety leads directly to a disruption of cognitive processes such as working memory, which leads directly to poorer mathematical performance (Hopko, Ashcraft, Gute, Ruggiero & Lewis, 1998). The working memory component most consistently associated with mathematics anxiety is the central executive (Ashcraft & Kreuse, 2007), although there is evidence (Miller & Bichsel, 2004) that visual-spatial working memory is impaired by mathematics anxiety. This study sought to explore the suggestion (Ashcraft & Kirk, 2001) that the mere presence of digits might trigger an anxious reaction among children reporting high levels of mathematics anxiety, leading to a decrement in working memory performance. Children of 9 and 10 years of age reported levels of mathematics anxiety and undertook two working memory tasks, one measuring central executive functioning and the other measuring visual-spatial working memory. Each working memory task was completed twice, once using letters as the to-be-remembered stimuli and again using digits. The differences in performance between the two versions of the tasks were compared with the reported levels of mathematics anxiety.  The findings suggest that the presence of digits as the stimuli caused a decrement in working memory performance commensurate with the reported levels of mathematical anxiety.


working memory; mathematics anxiety; children

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