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Showcase December 2013: Math Anxiety Relates to Spatial Processing

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Math Anxiety Relates to Spatial Processing

Erin A. Maloney1, Stephanie Waechter2, Evan Risko3, Marjorie W. Schaeffer1, Sherif Soliman2, Sian L. Beilock1, & Jonathan A. Fugelsang2

1University of Chicago, 2University of Waterloo, 3University of Memphis

Although dealing with mathematics is a part of daily life, a large subset of the population experiences a great deal of anxiety when doing even simple math tasks (e.g., calculating a tip). Math anxiety is linked to poor math performance, negative attitudes and emotions about math, and avoidance of math courses and math-related careers (Hembree, 1990). Despite normal performance in other domains, math anxious individuals perform poorly on tasks that require numerical or mathematical skills (e.g., Maloney et al., 2010; 2011; Ashcraft & Kirk, 2001; Beilock, 2010). Understanding why math anxiety relates to poor math performance offers an opportunity to uncover a population of individuals who could succeed in math – something that is vital for the success of our workforce in coming years.

Two accounts have been proposed to explain the link between math anxiety and poor math achievement, which are not mutually exclusive. The dominant account suggests that math anxious individuals experience worries while they are engaging in math which co-op working memory resources that would otherwise be allocated to the math task, hindering math performance (Ashcraft & Kirk; 2001). A second account suggests that, in addition to the worries, math anxious individuals also have difficulties with basic numerical processing which result in poor math achievement (Maloney et al., 2010; 2011; Maloney & Beilock, 2012). Here we expand on this second account, suggesting that math anxious individuals also have poor spatial abilities and that this difficulty accounts for some of the math-related difficulties that they experience.

It is no secret that numerical competency is linked to math achievement. Interestingly, it turns out that spatial processing also positively predicts math achievement. Researchers have begun to draw a causal link suggesting that poor spatial ability results in the development of poor numerical and mathematical skills (e.g., Assel et al.; Rotzer et al., 2009). Spatial processing seems to be a building block for numerical cognition.

Research uncovering a relation between spatial ability and math is important, but what about spatial processing and math anxiety? Could spatial processing also relate to math anxiety? Although this link may seem unlikely as spatial tasks are not, on their surface, “math-like,” math anxious adults have been shown to have difficulties in other building blocks of mathematics (e.g., counting objects and comparing magnitudes; Maloney et al., 2010; 2011) that are not necessarily overtly mathematical. In a series of three experiments we examine the relation between math anxiety and spatial processing. In Experiments 1- 3 we tested high and low math anxious participants’ spatial ability using the Corsi Tapping task (Kessels et al., 2008) and the Mental Rotations Task (MRT; Vandenberg & Kruse, 1978). We also assessed verbal working memory using the R-Span task (Unsworth et al., 2005). High math anxious individuals performed worse than the low math anxious individuals on both the MRT task (see Figure 1) and the Corsi task but not the R-Span Task (See Figure 2).

Figure 1
Figure 1. Performance on the MRT task by low and high math anxious individuals.

Figure 2
Figure 2. Performance on the Backwards Corsi task and the Reading Span task by low and high math anxious individuals.

The effect of math anxiety on the two spatial tasks (Corsi and MRT) provides the first behavioral evidence that high math anxious individuals perform worse on spatial processing tasks than low math anxious individuals.

In Experiment 3, we further show that an intervention known to help reduce the worries that are associated with anxiety – expressive writing – improves math performance for anxious adults on verbally-based math questions but is ineffective for spatially-based math questions (see Figure 3). These results suggest that the poor spatial performance of higher math anxious individuals is not simply due to anxiety-induced worries that compromise working memory resources that would otherwise be devoted to the spatial task. In other words, given that expressive writing – which is thought to reduce the worries experienced by anxious individuals – was only beneficial on the verbally based math questions, and not the spatially based questions, the results from Experiment 3 suggest that worries do not account for the difficulties that highly math anxious individuals experience with spatially-based problems. If worries were responsible for the math anxious individuals’ poor performance on the more spatial math questions, then the expressive writing exercise should have led to increased performance on both the verbally based and spatially based math questions. Thus, it appears that math anxiety-related spatial difficulties are not simply the result of anxiety induced worries.

Figure ?Figure 3. Performance on the horizontal (verbal) and vertical (spatial) math questions pre- and post-expressive writing for the low and high math anxious individuals.

Taken together, these three studies demonstrate a robust relation between math anxiety and poor performance on spatial tasks. Moreover, even if math anxious individuals are experiencing worries while completing spatial tasks, these worries are likely not responsible for their poor spatial performance (because reducing the worries did not lead to improvement on spatially-based math problems but did on the verbally-based problems).

These results provide insight into a potential mechanism for the development of math anxiety. Given that spatial skills provide a foundation for early math learning (e.g., Geary, 2004; Rotzer et al., 2009), children with poor spatial skills may be more likely to perform poorly in math and may have more negative experiences with math. As a result of these negative experiences, math anxiety may develop. The development of this anxiety would likely have a snowball effect, causing working memory-reducing worries which would lead to even worse performance in mathematics. Alternatively, math anxiety might lead people to avoid math courses and, if math courses improve spatial skills, then those who avoid these courses may have less developed spatial skills than their peers.

The fact that math anxiety is associated with poor spatial ability means that interventions designed to target math anxiety should focus not only on reducing anxiety and improving math ability but also on improving spatial abilities. The discovery of this relation not only gives us insight into possible antecedents to math anxiety but also highlights the importance of training spatial skills in those who are anxious about math. Fortunately, research on the effects of spatial training indicates that spatial skills are malleable and that improving spatial skills can result in improvements in math.

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