The Link between Math Phobia and Math Achievement

Math phobia also known as math anxiety is intense fear and a negative emotional reaction to math. Math phobia is different from dyscalculia, which is a disability to: (i) understand numbers, (ii) learning how to manipulate numbers, (iii) performing mathematical calculations, (iv) and learning facts in math. However, Devine, A., Hill et al (2018) found out that children with developmental dyscalculia were twice as likely to have high math phobia as children with typical math performance. Similarly, Barroso, C., Ganley, et al (2021)have figured out a negative association between math phobia and math achievement founding a robust association of these two variables. Accordingly, students who report high feeling of phobia toward math tend to have lower math achievement. And the negative association starts in childhood and remains through adulthood, with younger students exhibiting less phobia than older students.  

Another meta-analysis by Zhang, J., Zhao, et al (2019) indicates a robust negative math anxiety-performance correlation using a meta-analysis of 49 studies. They show the link of math phobia-performance varies by geographic region, grade level, etc, with math phobia -performance being strong among Asian students than European/American students, more in senior high school student’s vis-a-vis secondary or primary school students, and on students using custom tests that use to assess problem-solving skills. 

 The anxiety-performance link has the following two theoretical foundations:

(a)   processing efficiency theory: anxiety (worry) reduces the processing and storage capacity of working memory which in turn reduces the resources available for a math task.

(b)   attentional control theory: assumes that anxiety impairs the efficient functioning of the goal-directed attentional system. 

Cambridge University has also drawn three possibly theories on math anxiety and math performance as in following :

According to Cambridge researchers, math anxiety math performance related as follows: 

  1. Math phobia leads to poor math performance and forms a feedback loop 
  2. Math phobia has both mental and emotional aspects 
  3. Math phobia affects a significant proportion of school and university students of all ages, as well as adults; girls are more prone than boys 
  4. Math anxiety affects working memory
  5. Teachers who experience math anxiety may induce it in students , especially female teachers, and female students

Parents and educators could help reduce the impact of anxiety on students performance,  and help kids have better number sense through:


  1. providing a home learning environment: playing math games and activities blocking and number rhymes activities
  2. refraining from transferring their math anxiety to their kids

Educators : design a curriculums that ensures

  1. Conceptual understanding
  2. Communication using symbols
  3. Fluency
  4. Logical reasoning
  5. Strategic competence


Barroso, C., Ganley, C. M., McGraw, A. L., Geer, E. A., Hart, S. A., & Daucourt, M. C. (2021). A meta-analysis of the relation between math anxiety and math achievement. Psychological Bulletin147(2), 134.S

Devine, A., Hill, F., Carey, E., & Szűcs, D. (2018). Cognitive and emotional math problems largely dissociate: Prevalence of developmental dyscalculia and mathematics anxiety. Journal of Educational Psychology110(3), 431.

Zhang, J., Zhao, N., & Kong, Q. P. (2019). The relationship between math anxiety and math performance: A meta-analytic investigation. Frontiers in psychology10, 1613.

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