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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.