Do timed tests cause maths anxiety?

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We all know that students will sometimes become anxious when faced with a school test. Part of our role as teachers is to mitigate this anxiety. We should avoid talking about tests in a way that heightens their perceived importance and instead stress the role they play in learning. Personally, I often frame tests as ‘just checking in to see how well I’ve taught you’.

Whereas I accept that tests will sometimes be a source of pressure, that is different to the more specific claim made by Professor Jo Boaler and others that timed maths tests cause maths anxiety.

Maths anxiety

First, we need an understanding of what maths anxiety is. According to the Centre for Neuroscience in Education at Cambridge University, maths anxiety can be defined as:

“…a feeling of tension and anxiety that interferes with the manipulation of numbers and the solving of mathematical problems in … ordinary life and academic situations. The severity of Mathematics Anxiety can range from a feeling of mild tension all the way to experiencing a strong fear of maths. The prevalence of extreme mathematics anxiety is estimated at between 2-6% at secondary school level in the UK, and other cases, whilst less severe, can still have a significant effect on the people who suffer with it.” [footnotes and references removed]

Notice that maths anxiety is not a one-off event, it is a medium- to long-term condition. To prove experimentally that timed tests cause maths anxiety, we would need to run a randomised controlled trial where one group of students is subjected to timed tests and another group is not, with a follow-up at a later stage to measure the prevalence of maths anxiety in the two groups. Although not impossible to do, it seems unlikely that someone would run such a test.

An alternative may be to look for a correlation between timed tests and maths anxiety out there in the real world. If we found such a correlation, we would then have to rule-out the possibility that having maths anxiety somehow causes students to be subjected to more timed tests or that some other factor may cause both. This would be a debatable question but ultimately it could be answered with a sufficient weight of evidence.

What is the evidence?

Boaler has written an article that is linked via her YouCubed website. Despite purporting to demonstrate that timed tests cause maths anxiety, the closest Boaler gets to direct evidence is to quote a study by Randall Engle as evidence that:

“…researchers now know that students experience stress on timed tests that they do not experience even when working on the same math questions in untimed conditions.”

This does not provide evidence that timed tests cause maths anxiety, it provides evidence that test conditions can be stressful. Moreover, I have read Engle’s paper and I cannot see any mention of the study described by Boaler.

The rest of the research cited by Boaler relates to the fact that stress can impair performance on maths tasks. Again, I am prepared to accept this but it does not prove the central claim.

Victoria Simms went on a similar hunt for the evidence of a link between timed tests and maths anxiety when reviewing Boaler’s bookMathematical Mindsets:

“[Boaler] discusses a purported causal connection between drill practice and long-term mathematical anxiety, a claim for which she provides no evidence, beyond a reference to “Boaler (2014c)” (p38). After due investigation it appears that this reference is an online article which repeats the same claim, this time referencing “Boaler (2014)”, an article which does not appear in the reference list, or on Boaler’s website.

I am wondering whether “Boaler (2014)” is meant to be the same article that I looked at and that uses the Engle reference. Perhaps Jo Boaler would like to clear this up?

What other evidence is there that relates to maths anxiety?

The Cambridge Centre for Neuroscience in Education observes that although low mathematical achievement and maths anxiety are correlated, the direction of cause-and-effect is unclear. Does maths anxiety cause low achievement or does low achievement cause maths anxiety? Are they perhaps reciprocal, with low achievement causing maths anxiety which causes future low achievement and so on?

In this case, it is at least plausible to argue for precisely the opposite case to that made by Boaler. The purpose of timed tests, particularly for maths facts such as number bonds and times-tables, is often to ensure that students have these facts available automatically and don’t have to work them out. Why is this important? If you simply know that 7 x 8=56 then you don’t have to use your limited working memory resources to work this out and you can therefore deploy them on some other component of a maths problem. Coupled with the kinds of explicit teaching methods that research has shown to be effective, such approaches may actually be a far better way of tackling low achievement and therefore maths anxiety.

Update: In December 2018, American Educator published an article that led to the same citation dead-end as the one found by Victoria Simms. Subsequently, Jo Boaler has now updated the final post in that chain with the missing reference and this shows that she is indeed referring to the 2014 paper that I wrote about above. I did not pick this up at the time, but the specific claim is “For about one third of students the onset of timed testing is the beginning of math anxiety (Boaler, 2014)“. I cannot see anything in the 2014 paper that supports such a claim.

13 thoughts on “Do timed tests cause maths anxiety?

  1. “We all know that students will sometimes become anxious when faced with a school test. Part of our role as teachers is to mitigate this anxiety. We should avoid talking about tests in a way that heightens their perceived importance and instead stress the role they play in learning.”

    Exactly.

    Here in British Columbia there is a full on war against standardised testing that our teacher’s union likes to whip into a frrenzy, citing students that are seized with overwhelming anxiety at the mere mention of “testing”. Really? And why my that be when so many teachers are against it? Part of our duty as parents, and educators, is to prepare our children for the world unknown, and preparing for tests – timed or otherwise – is an obligation we must all share.

    “Research shows..” only works if there’s actual research to support your claims. If not, move forward to what works in the classroom. Timed tests, and practice, are part of that.

    1. And in the real world the “timed tests” often are very tight deadlines with often very little time to actually prepare. Get students used to that kind of situation and in the real world the tight deadlines will not be so anxiety inducing.

      Maybe its teachers who dislike the tests and are pushing their concerns onto vulnerable students?

    1. Many thanks for Dowker et al–it has a few promising references in relation to working memory that will keep me busy later today.
      A rather obvious explanation for ‘Maths Anxiety’ is that teachers haven’t prepared their pupils adequately–this will cause problems even if they don’t use tests, timed or otherwise. With NCETM guidelines in reference to initial strategies for calculation, this is almost inevitable. Over the last few weeks I’ve been trawling through the workings of Yr 7 & Yr 8 pupils on an arithmetic test; the bottom sets seldom attempted any problems save addition and subtraction, and even then the error rate was high. Percentage questions were a particular weakness; those who attempted an answer almost invariably used a partitioning strategy, and most got bogged down and failed.
      By contrast, I know two teachers who have used timed tests on a daily basis to teach number bonds. Because pupils were always striving to beat their ‘personal best’, they looked forward to these short sessions and their attitude to maths improved enormously.
      I suspect the profession’s aversion to testing reflects teachers’ ambivalence about constructivist ideology; it’s hardly any secret that most people outside education think that an induction to knowledge is an essential element of schooling. However they rationalise their beliefs, teachers can’t escape knowing that without firm guidance, the meanings their pupils construct are often trivial or just plain wrong.

  2. In her article ‘Fluency Without Fear’ Jo mentions a study (Math Anxiety, Working Memory, and Math Achievement in Early Elementary School) where she reports that math facts are held in the working memory part of the brain, then later says they are stored in the hippocampus.

    I found this contradictory to what I’d read: that the working memory mainly involves the frontal lobes and the hippocampus is involved more with long-term memory. Facts are only ‘held’ in the working memory if they’ve not yet been committed to the long-term memory, so when she’s saying that the working memory becomes ‘blocked’ and students can’t access the math facts, surely she is talking about the students that haven’t yet memorized them? Seems not though as she claims,

    “MRI imaging… found that math facts are held in the working memory section of the brain. But when students are stressed, such as when they are taking math questions under time pressure, the working memory becomes blocked and students cannot access math facts they know”

    Is this misinterpreting what the study actually found? Isn’t the research saying that the working memory becomes ‘overloaded’ rather than ‘blocked’ – something that would not be a problem if facts were committed to LT memory in the first place. It’s a pretty huge difference.

    The study she refers to is linked, below. A quick search of the document shows that the word ‘blocked’ appears zero times.

    https://hpl.uchicago.edu/sites/hpl.uchicago.edu/files/uploads/Ramirez%20et%20al%2C%202013.pdf

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