Background

Mathematics anxiety (MA), a state of discomfort associated with performing mathematical tasks, is thought to affect a notable proportion of the school age population. Some research has indicated that MA negatively affects mathematics performance and that girls may report higher levels of MA than boys. On the other hand some research has indicated that boys’ mathematics performance is more negatively affected by MA than girls’ performance is. The aim of the current study was to measure girls’ and boys’ mathematics performance as well as their levels of MA while controlling for test anxiety (TA) a construct related to MA but which is typically not controlled for in MA studies.

Methods

Four-hundred and thirty three British secondary school children in school years 7, 8 and 10 completed customised mental mathematics tests and MA and TA questionnaires.

Results

No gender differences emerged for mathematics performance but levels of MA and TA were higher for girls than for boys. Girls and boys showed a positive correlation between MA and TA and a negative correlation between MA and mathematics performance. TA was also negatively correlated with mathematics performance, but this relationship was stronger for girls than for boys. When controlling for TA, the negative correlation between MA and performance remained for girls only. Regression analyses revealed that MA was a significant predictor of performance for girls but not for boys.

Conclusions

Our study has revealed that secondary school children experience MA. Importantly, we controlled for TA which is typically not controlled for in MA studies. Girls showed higher levels of MA than boys and high levels of MA were related to poorer levels of mathematics performance. As well as potentially having a detrimental effect on ‘online’ mathematics performance, past research has shown that high levels of MA can have negative consequences for later mathematics education. Therefore MA warrants attention in the mathematics classroom, particularly because there is evidence that MA develops during the primary school years. Furthermore, our study showed no gender difference in mathematics performance, despite girls reporting higher levels of MA. These results might suggest that girls may have had the potential to perform better than boys in mathematics however their performance may have been attenuated by their higher levels of MA. Longitudinal research is needed to investigate the development of MA and its effect on mathematics performance.