Original Research ARTICLE

Front. Psychol., 07 June 2012 | doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00162

Math anxiety in second and third graders and its relation to mathematics achievement

Sarah S. Wu1*, Maria Barth2,3,4,5†, Hitha Amin2,3,4,5†, Vanessa Malcarne6 and Vinod Menon2,3,4,5*
  • 1 Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, University of Colorado at Boulder, Boulder, CO, USA
  • 2 Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, USA
  • 3 Department of Neurology and Neurological Sciences, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, USA
  • 4 Symbolic Systems Program, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, USA
  • 5 Program in Neuroscience, Stanford University, Stanford University, Stanford, CA, USA
  • 6 Department of Psychology, San Diego State University, San Diego, CA, USA

Although the detrimental effects of math anxiety in adults are well understood, few studies have examined how it affects younger children who are beginning to learn math in a formal academic setting. Here, we examine the relationship between math anxiety and math achievement in second and third graders. In response to the need for a grade-appropriate measure of assessing math anxiety in this group we first describe the development of Scale for Early Mathematics Anxiety (SEMA), a new measure for assessing math anxiety in second and third graders that is based on the Math Anxiety Rating Scale. We demonstrate the construct validity and reliability of the SEMA and use it to characterize the effect of math anxiety on standardized measures of math abilities, as assessed using the Mathematical Reasoning and Numerical Operations subtests of the Wechsler Individual Achievement Test (WIAT-II). Math achievement, as measured by the WIAT-II Math Composite score, was significantly and negatively correlated with SEMA but not with trait anxiety scores. Additional analyses showed that SEMA scores were strongly correlated with Mathematical Reasoning scores, which involves more complex verbal problem solving. SEMA scores were weakly correlated with Numerical Operations which assesses basic computation skills, suggesting that math anxiety has a pronounced effect on more demanding calculations. We also found that math anxiety has an equally detrimental impact on math achievement regardless of whether children have an anxiety related to numbers or to the situational and social experience of doing math. Critically, these effects were unrelated to trait anxiety, providing the first evidence that the specific effects of math anxiety can be detected in the earliest stages of formal math learning in school. Our findings provide new insights into the developmental origins of math anxiety, and further underscore the need to remediate math anxiety and its deleterious effects on math achievement in young children.

Keywords: math anxiety, mathematics achievement, early math learning, math anxiety assessment

Citation: Wu SS, Barth M, Amin H, Malcarne V and Menon V (2012) Math anxiety in second and third graders and its relation to mathematics achievement. Front. Psychology 3:162. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00162

Received: 16 February 2012; Accepted: 06 May 2012
Published online: 07 June 2012.

Edited by:

Steven E. Mock, University of Waterloo, Canada

Reviewed by:

Erin Anne Maloney, University of Chicago, USA
Jonathan Fugelsang, University of Waterloo, Canada

Copyright: © 2012 Wu, Barth, Amin, Malcarne and Menon. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution Non Commercial License, which permits non-commercial use, distribution, and reproduction in other forums, provided the original authors and source are credited.

*Correspondence: Sarah S. Wu and Vinod Menon, Symbolic Systems Program, Program in Neuroscience, and Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, 401 Quarry Road, Stanford, CA 94305-5719, USA. e-mail: sarah.wu@colorado.edu; menon@stanford.edu

Maria Barth and Hitha Amin have contributed equally to this work.

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