What is arithmetic anxiety?

Arithmetic anxiety is a negative emotional response or feeling of tension and anxiety to situations involving numbers, math and calculations. Arithmetic anxiety has a significant impact on all areas of life, both on daily life and on academic performance, for example: giving a tip, calculating change, choosing a career, within a classroom, choosing courses. Arithmetic anxiety has a wide range of responses, ranging from mild frustration to a huge emotional outburst.

Arithmetic anxiety was defined as early as 1957 by Dreger & Aiken and has 3 characteristics: 1. It must be distinguished from general anxiety. 2. It is not directly related to general intelligence. That is, it may adversely affect intelligence achievement, but is not caused by a low level of intelligence 3. There is an inverse relationship between arithmetic anxiety level and academic performance in mathematics. That is, the more anxiety there is the less good the math performance in mathematics.

Arithmetic anxiety is due to one of the following reasons:

  • Environmental background: Negative experience as part of arithmetic lessons or with a specific teacher.
  • Personal background: Low self-esteem, inability to believe in yourself.
  • Cognitive background: Low intelligence abilities, cognitive difficulty in arithmetic or difficulty in working memory.

What is the relationship between arithmetic anxiety and arithmetic achievement?

The relationship is two-way: on the one hand, arithmetic misunderstanding and repeated failure cause avoidant behavior and arithmetic anxiety. On the other hand, arithmetic anxiety will cause avoidance of arithmetic and will increase the gap between the student and their classmates. Therefore, children with arithmetic anxiety will show avoidant behavior. Moreover, arithmetic anxiety, like other anxieties, causes a Romination mechanism (thoughts that are repeated in the same way that can not be detached from, for example: “I can not”, “I will not succeed”, “I will fail”). The recurring thoughts “consume” the working memory resources until less cognitive resources remain for calculation. As a result, arithmetic achievements are impaired, especially as math becomes more complex, and involves many steps and procedures which require more resources of working memory.


Risk factors for developing arithmetic anxiety:

  • Low mathematical ability or skill
  • Working memory is lacking
  • Lower-than-average motivation

Other factors that can feed arithmetic anxiety and fuel it:

  • Vulnerability to other anxieties, such as general anxiety or social anxiety
  • Unsupportive instruction

Is it possible to improve arithmetic abilities in subjects with learning disabilities by reducing arithmetic anxiety?

It most certainly is. Arithmetic anxiety can be reduced with the help of emotional intervention which includes: firstly, indication of the non-adaptive self-thinking processes. Secondly, turning unconscious processes into conscious processes by identifying and acknowledging the process of romination and controlling it. Finally, learning a strategy of dealing with these thoughts in arithmetic tests, such as replacing a negative thought with a positive one.

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