“The Causal Ordering of Mathematics Anxiety and Mathematics Achievement:
A Longitudinal Panel Analysis”
X. Ma and Jiangming Xu, Journal of Adolescence Vol. 27 Issue 2 April 2004
Mathematics anxiety is defined as “a discomfort state created when students are required to
perform mathematical tasks.” The main characteristics of math anxiety are dislike, worry, and fear,
which all cause tension, frustration, distress, helplessness, and mental disorganization. There are three
dimensions of math anxiety; they are math test anxiety (associated with anticipating, taking, and
receiving math test), numerical anxiety (associated with number manipulation), and abstraction anxiety
(associated with abstract mathematical content). Environment, intellect, and personality all affect a
person’s math anxiety. The research questions this study was investigating dealt with examining the
causal nature of the relationship between math anxiety and math achievement across grades 6 to 12 and
examining gender differences in the causal relationship.
Previous research has shown that math anxiety causes students to drop out of math classes, have
negative attitudes about math, avoid math majors and careers, and dislike teaching math if he/she
becomes a teacher. General techniques to combat math anxiety are classroom practice reforms,
alternative instructional formats, and counseling and treatments. Some researchers have said that
gender is determiner of math anxiety, but others say that there is no real difference between the math
anxiety of males and females. The different models that researchers have created concerning the
relationship between math anxiety and math achievement are as follows: there is no relationship
between math anxiety and achievement, the interference model (high math anxiety is a cause of low
math achievement), the deficits model (high math anxiety is an effect of low math achievement), and
the reciprocal model (math anxiety and math achievement are reciprocally related).
Ma and Xu utilized the Longitudinal Study of American Youth or LSAY, which is a national, 6-
year panel study, tracking students throughout the entire secondary schooling (from grade 6 to 12).
The LSAY is a national probability sample of 52 public middle and high schools across the United
States. Sixty students were randomly selected from grade 7 in these 52 schools, and then were
followed until their senior year. In total, there were 3116 students, where 1626 were boys and 1490
were girls. The main focus of the LSAY is on science and math. The students wrote achievement tests
in math and science and completed a questionnaire covering a wide range of measures, including math
anxiety. The two indicators of math anxiety were “doing math often makes me nervous or upset” and
“I often get scared when I open my math book and see a page of problems”.
The study found that math achievement has much more of an impact on later math achievement,
than prior math anxiety has on later math anxiety. Low math achievement has more of a negative
impact on later math anxiety, than high math anxiety has on later math achievement. Concerning
gender differences, the study concluded that male achievement and female achievement are very
similar. However, females’ math anxiety is greater than that of males, especially at transition periods
from elementary to middle school and from middle to high school.
There are several significant results that this study found. One is that while most studies agree that
math anxiety is greater among girls than among boys, this study found that there are virtually no
differences in math anxiety in boys and girls after 1990. Another major contribution is the relationship
the study found between math anxiety and math achievement. The data found from this study fits the
deficits model; in other words, low math achievement causes high math anxiety.
1. What is your experience with math? Do you or your students have math anxiety? Do you
think it follows this model?
2. What other limitations do you see about this study?
3. Do you like their suggestions and could you use them in your classroom?
4. Why do you think that there is such a math anxiety and is there a difference in male and female
5. What are some of your suggestions?