Washington: Math jitters grip bright students even
as first or second graders and haunts them lifelong, says a study.
Sian Beilock, professor in psychology at the University of Chicago
and her colleagues, found most surprisingly that math anxiety
harmed the highest-achieving students, who typically have the most
"You can think of working memory as a kind of 'mental scratchpad'
that allows us to 'work' with whatever information is temporarily
flowing through consciousness," said Beilock, who co-authored the
study with Chicago doctoral candidate Gerardo Ramirez and others.
"It's especially important when we have to do a math problem and
juggle numbers in our head. Working memory is one of the major
building blocks of IQ," he added, the Journal of Cognition and
The team showed that a high degree of math anxiety undermined
performance of otherwise successful students, placing them almost
half a school year behind their less anxious peers, according to a
Less talented students with lower working memory were not impacted
by anxiety, because they developed simpler ways of dealing with
mathematics problems, such as counting on their fingers.
Ironically, because these lower-performing students didn't use
working memory much to solve math problems, their performance
didn't suffer when worried.
Researchers tested 88 first-graders and 66 second-graders from a
large urban school system, to measure their academic abilities,
their working memory and their fear of mathematics.
They were asked, on a sliding scale, how nervous they felt to go
to the front of the room and work on a mathematics problem on the
The study found that among the highest-achieving students, about
half had medium to high math anxiety.
Math anxiety was also common among low-achieving students, but it
did not impact their performance.