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Mathematics anxiety (MA) is the state of discomfort around the
performance of mathematical tasks. Does MA cause poor performance in
mathematics, or is it poor performance in mathematics that causes MA?
The question is important, because it affects the “treatment” that
results. Should the focus be on improving students’ confidence, or their
maths ability?

A review in Frontiers in Psychology
considers the evidence supporting the two models – The Deficit Theory,
which claims that poor performance leads to high anxiety, or The
Debilitating Anxiety Theory, which claims that anxiety reduces
performance by affecting the pre-processing, processing, and retrieval
of information.

The evidence is conflicting – there is research to support the
Deficit Theory, with the strongest evidence coming from longitudinal
studies and studies of mathematical disabilities. Similarly, there is
support for the Debilitating Anxiety Model from studies across all ages
that have manipulated anxiety to reveal either a deterioration or
improvement in performance. The paper considers that this is indicative
of a Reciprocal Theory, where MA and poor performance reinforce each
other in a vicious cycle. This in turn suggests that interventions to
address MA should target both the anxiety and mathematics performance.

Source: The Chicken or the Egg? The Direction of the Relationship Between Mathematics Anxiety and Mathematics Performance (2016), Frontiers in Psychology.