Title: Math anxiety differentially impairs symbolic, but not nonsymbolic, fraction skills across development
Legend: Some children (and even adults) experience anxiety when asked to do mathematics, and this anxiety leads to lower math performance. However, previous research into this topic has investigated mathematics broadly. As part of an ongoing longitudinal study of children’s fractions abilities <LINK: https://www.waisman.wisc.edu/2017/01/05/fractions-of-neuroscience/> we measured math anxiety and fractions skills in younger (2nd/3rd) and older (5th/6th) grade children. We first asked children to rate how anxious doing math would make them using a standard pencil-and-paper questionnaire. We then asked them to compare two pairs of fractions, presented as “nonsymbolic” line ratios, pairs of “symbolic” numerical fractions, or as a mixture of both types. We found that younger children who were high in math anxiety were less efficient in comparing symbolic fractions, but not nonsymbolic fractions. Older children did not show this same impact of math anxiety on basic fractions skills, but still showed a link between math anxiety and their performance on pencil-and-paper tests (our “Fractions Knowledge Assessment”) like the ones they would take in school.
Citation: Starling Alves, I., Wronski, M.R., & Hubbard, E.M. (in press, 2021) Math anxiety differentially impairs symbolic, but not nonsymbolic, fraction skills across development. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, in press. doi: 10.1111/nyas.14715
Abstract: Although important for the acquisition of later math skills, fractions are notoriously difficult. Previous studies have shown that higher math anxiety (MA) is associated with lower performance in symbolic fraction tasks in adults and have suggested that MA may negatively impact the acquisition of fractions in children. However, the effects of MA on fraction skills in school-aged children remain underexplored. We, therefore, investigated the impact of MA on the performance of younger (second and third graders) and older (fifth and sixth graders) children in math fluency (MF), written calculation, fraction knowledge (FK), and symbolic fraction and nonsymbolic ratio processing. On the basis of our prior work suggesting a perceptual foundation for fraction processing, we predicted that symbolic, but not nonsymbolic, math skills (especially fractions) would be impaired by MA. As predicted, higher MA was associated with lower performance in general mathematics achievement and symbolic fraction tasks, but nonsymbolic ratio processing was not affected by MA in either age group. Furthermore, working memory capacity partially mediated the effects of MA on general mathematics achievement, FK, and symbolic fraction processing. These results suggest that understanding the bidirectional interactions between MA and fractions may be important for helping children acquire these critical skills.
About the Lab: Edward Hubbard’s Educational Neuroscience Lab explores questions at the intersection of education and neuroscience, in the emerging field of Educational Neuroscience. Our research examines the neural underpinnings of cognitive processes that are relevant for education, and the role of educational experiences and enculturation as primary drivers of brain plasticity to create the neural circuits that underlie human-specific abilities. Our research combines the latest technological advances in understanding the human brain as a “learning organ” with insights from cognitive psychology and education to help build the emerging field of educational neuroscience.