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Research suggests that math and test anxiety have detrimental impacts on performance in math. To prevent these effects, a number of interventions have been developed, but these interventions have not been extensively tested. In the current study, we examine whether four brief anxiety interventions reduce state anxiety and/or increase math performance. We also examine whether any of the interventions weaken the relation between math or test anxiety and math performance. Participants were 300 college students varying in math and test anxiety levels. Participants were randomly assigned to one of four single-session interventions, which each took 5 minutes or less (reappraisal as challenge, reappraisal as excitement, expressive writing, and look ahead), or a no intervention control group. Results generally show that none of the interventions had an effect on reports of state anxiety or performance on a difficult math assessment, with the exception that students in the expressive writing condition reported higher levels of state anxiety. None of the interventions served to attenuate the relation between math or test anxiety and math performance. These findings were not consistent with results of previous work, and suggest that interventions may need to be more extensive in order to have an effect on state anxiety and math performance.

Psychology researchers have long been aware of the debilitating effects of both math and test anxiety on math learning and performance, with key research in this area being conducted as early as the 1950s (

Anxiety is an emotion that involves feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes (

Another important aspect of anxiety to consider is its focus. General anxiety is broad and is felt in everyday situations (

Researchers consistently find that anxiety is related to math performance across a number of anxiety measures and math assessments. This relation has been found with general anxiety measures (

Thus, there is evidence for concurrent and longitudinal relations; however, the causal directions have not been fully teased apart (

Though many studies examining the relation between anxiety and math performance use correlational data (

Because theory suggests the effect of anxiety on math performance may be situational (i.e., occur in the moment), we focus on interventions that are designed to alleviate anxiety immediately before testing or performance situations. We also focus on interventions that are brief and easy to administer to increase the potential for future use in regular classroom or testing environments. From the available anxiety interventions in the literature, we identified four interventions that met these three criteria. Importantly, past research has found that each of these interventions is effective in increasing math performance.

Two of these interventions capitalize on the multiple interpretations people can have of physiological arousal (

The remaining two interventions involve the idea that anxiety has an effect on performance because it utilizes cognitive resources.

Thus, each of these interventions has been tested separately and against different control groups to examine effects on math performance. However, their effects have not yet been examined within a single study and compared to the same control condition.

Generally, the goals of these interventions are to increase performance, which could potentially result from either a decrease in the level of anxiety itself, or a decrease in the effect this anxiety has on performance. If the first of these is true, then we should see decreases in state anxiety. If the second is true, we should see that the interventions weaken the relation between anxiety and math performance. Another way to think about this second possibility would be that the effects of the interventions are stronger for people with higher anxiety, who need the intervention most.

Past research shows mixed support for each of these possibilities. Researchers have found that allowing participants to look ahead at the questions (

In the present study, our overall goals were to test the effects of these four interventions on both state anxiety and math performance, examine whether the relation between anxiety and performance was weaker for intervention groups, and to do this within one sample so we could assess effects when compared to the same control group. Thus, we conducted a randomized experiment to test whether each of the brief anxiety interventions (hereafter referred to as

Participants were 315 college students recruited through a psychology department subject pool. Fifteen participants were removed from analyses because they took less than 10 minutes to complete the 20-item math test (an average of < 30 seconds per item) and scored at or below chance (20%). Thus, the final analytic sample was 300 participants. Sixty-six percent of these participants were female. Participants were, on average, 19 years and 8 months old (

To measure math anxiety, students completed the Math Anxiety Rating Scale-Revised (

To measure test anxiety, students completed the Cognitive Test Anxiety Scale (

After they completed the math test, participants answered nine items about their anxiety. Four items were from

Students completed 20 multiple-choice items from sample tests for the quantitative reasoning section of the GRE covering number (11 items), algebra (5 items), and geometry concepts (4 items). Students were given up to 70 seconds to complete each item. Likely due to this math test measuring many diverse math concepts, the internal consistency was not high in this sample (α = .60). Math performance scores were calculated by assigning a 0 or 1 for correctness for each item and then calculating an average across the 20 items and multiplying by 100. Unanswered items were assigned a 0.

Participants were randomly assigned to one of the four intervention conditions (

Participants in the reappraisal as challenge condition read the following summary of research from

Participants in the reappraisal as excitement condition read the words “Try to get excited” on the computer screen before the math test, as was done in

Based on

Participants in the look ahead condition read “You may now take up to 2 minutes to look over the math questions that will be on this test before you take it” (from

In the control condition, instead of seeing any of the four statements in the intervention conditions, students saw a screen that said “Click Next” and were brought to the math test. Thus, the control condition is similar to the conditions under which a student would typically take a math test.

To examine whether any of the four interventions described above led to decreased state anxiety or improved math test performance, and if any interventions decreased the relation between math or test anxiety and math performance, we conducted six hierarchical regression analyses. Three analyses included self-reported state anxiety as the outcome and three analyses included math performance as the outcome. The first analysis out of the three analyses for each outcome included math anxiety in the model, the second analysis included test anxiety in the model, and the third analysis included both math anxiety and test anxiety. For each model, we entered variables in three steps. In the first step, we included four dummy codes, one for each of the experimental conditions, with the control group as the reference group. In the second step, we included standardized scores for math anxiety, test anxiety, or both. In the third step, we included interactions between each of the experimental conditions and standardized scores for math anxiety, test anxiety, or both.

To provide additional evidence, we also conducted Bayesian analyses, where analyses were available. Bayes factors (BF) are thus reported when applicable. Bayesian methods allow the researcher to assess the strength of the evidence for the alternative hypothesis as well as for the null hypothesis (_{10} (stronger support for the alternative hypothesis) or BF_{01} (stronger support for the null hypothesis) values greater than 10 as strong evidence, greater than 3 as evidence, and between 1 and 3 as inconclusive (

We first examined whether participants took part in the interventions as intended when information was available. Similar to _{01} = 1.58). We also examined the content of the written portion for participants in the expressive writing condition to assess if they did in fact write about their thoughts in regard to the math test. We found that 95% of the sample mentioned something relating to math, suggesting that the participants generally followed the instructions provided for this intervention. Students who did not mention anything related to math were still included in the sample. Descriptive statistics and correlations are presented in

Variable | Descriptive Statistics |
Correlations |
|||||||
---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|

Scale | Skew | Kurtosis | Math Anxiety | Test Anxiety | State Anxiety | Math Score | |||

Math Anxiety | 2.31 | 0.80 | 1-5 | 0.71 | -0.10 | – | |||

Test Anxiety | 2.31 | 0.53 | 1-4 | 0.31 | -0.22 | .55*** | – | ||

State Anxiety | 3.98 | 1.31 | 1-7 | 0.12 | -0.64 | .51*** | .58*** | – | |

Math Score | 33.17 | 13.91 | 0-100 | 0.77 | 0.79 | -.28*** | -.27*** | -.24*** | – |

***

There were no significant issues with skew or kurtosis (

^{2} = .03, ^{2} = .03,

Condition | Math Anxiety |
Test Anxiety |
State Anxiety |
Math Score |
|||||
---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|

Reappraisal as challenge ( |
59 | 2.51 | 0.83 | 2.44 | 0.54 | 4.14 | 1.26 | 33.90 | 14.56 |

Reappraisal as excitement ( |
63 | 2.32 | 0.83 | 2.31 | 0.48 | 3.86 | 1.29 | 32.38 | 13.16 |

Expressive writing ( |
63 | 2.21 | 0.72 | 2.28 | 0.48 | 4.28 | 1.30 | 32.14 | 12.00 |

Look ahead ( |
58 | 2.37 | 0.81 | 2.33 | 0.58 | 3.88 | 1.38 | 33.10 | 14.65 |

Control | 57 | 2.12 | 0.76 | 2.17 | 0.53 | 3.71 | 1.26 | 34.47 | 15.49 |

Results from the hierarchical regression analyses are displayed in ^{2} = .02). Bayesian results also suggested evidence in favor of a difference between these conditions, but it was in the inconclusive range (BF_{10} = 2.69). The direction of the regression coefficient indicates that participants in the expressive writing condition actually reported _{10} = 1.03), but evidence was in favor of the null hypothesis for the reappraisal as excitement (BF_{01} = 4.50) and look ahead conditions (BF_{01} = 3.79).

For math performance, we did not find statistically significant differences between any of the anxiety interventions and the control condition (_{01}s ≥ 3.49). The experimental design overall only accounted for a nonsignificant 3% of the variance in state anxiety and 0.4% of the variance in math performance.

Variable | Math Anxiety Only |
Test Anxiety Only |
Both Math and Test Anxiety |
||||||
---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|

Model 1 | Model 2 | Model 3 | Model 1 | Model 2 | Model 3 | Model 1 | Model 2 | Model 3 | |

Challenge | 0.13 | 0.03 | 0.03 | 0.13 | 0.01 | 0.02 | 0.13 | -0.01 | -0.01 |

Excitement | 0.05 | -0.01 | -0.01 | 0.05 | -0.02 | -0.01 | 0.05 | -0.03 | -0.04 |

Writing | 0.18* | 0.15* | 0.14* | 0.18* | 0.13* | 0.13* | 0.18* | 0.13* | 0.12* |

Look Ahead | 0.05 | -0.01 | -0.02 | 0.05 | -0.02 | -0.02 | 0.05 | -0.03 | -0.04 |

Math Anxiety | 0.51*** | 0.60*** | 0.28*** | 0.41** | |||||

Test Anxiety | 0.58*** | 0.57*** | 0.43*** | 0.39** | |||||

Challenge x Math Anxiety | -0.08 | -0.08 | |||||||

Excitement x Math Anxiety | -0.05 | -0.05 | |||||||

Writing x Math Anxiety | -0.03 | -0.06 | |||||||

Look Ahead x Math Anxiety | -0.02 | -0.09 | |||||||

Challenge x Test Anxiety | -0.03 | -0.01 | |||||||

Excitement x Test Anxiety | 0.01 | 0.01 | |||||||

Writing x Test Anxiety | 0.02 | 0.03 | |||||||

Look Ahead x Test Anxiety | 0.03 | 0.05 | |||||||

Δ^{2} |
.26*** | .003 | .33*** | .002 | .38*** | .005 | |||

^{2} |
.03 | .28*** | .29** | .03 | .35*** | .35*** | .03 | .41*** | .41*** |

*

Variable | Math Anxiety Only |
Test Anxiety Only |
Both Math and Test Anxiety |
||||||
---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|---|

Model 1 | Model 2 | Model 3 | Model 1 | Model 2 | Model 3 | Model 1 | Model 2 | Model 3 | |

Challenge | -0.02 | 0.04 | 0.06 | -0.02 | 0.04 | 0.06 | -0.02 | 0.06 | 0.08 |

Excitement | -0.06 | -0.03 | -0.03 | -0.06 | -0.03 | -0.02 | -0.06 | -0.02 | -0.01 |

Writing | -0.07 | -0.06 | -0.05 | -0.07 | -0.05 | -0.04 | -0.07 | -0.05 | -0.03 |

Look Ahead | -0.04 | -0.00 | -0.01 | -0.04 | -0.01 | 0.00 | -0.04 | 0.00 | 0.01 |

Math Anxiety | -0.28*** | -0.31* | -0.19** | -0.17 | |||||

Test Anxiety | -0.27*** | -0.37** | -0.17* | -0.30* | |||||

Challenge x Math Anxiety | -0.05 | -0.07 | |||||||

Excitement x Math Anxiety | -0.00 | -0.02 | |||||||

Writing x Math Anxiety | 0.04 | 0.02 | |||||||

Look Ahead x Math Anxiety | 0.08 | -0.00 | |||||||

Challenge x Test Anxiety | 0.00 | 0.05 | |||||||

Excitement x Test Anxiety | -0.01 | 0.01 | |||||||

Writing x Test Anxiety | 0.05 | 0.04 | |||||||

Look Ahead x Test Anxiety | 0.16 | 0.18 | |||||||

Δ^{2} |
.08*** | .01 | .07*** | .02 | .10*** | .02 | |||

^{2} |
.004 | .08*** | .09*** | .004 | .08*** | .10*** | .004 | .10*** | .13*** |

*

In the second step, we added either math anxiety or test anxiety, or both, as additional predictors (Model 2s in ^{2}s ≤ .02). For state anxiety, adding both math and test anxiety significantly increased the amount of variance explained by 38.5% (

In the third step of analyses, we included interactions between either math anxiety and each experimental condition or test anxiety and each condition, or both (Model 3s in ^{2}s ≤ .02). Math anxiety and test anxiety were statistically significant predictors across models, with the exception of math anxiety no longer being a significant predictor of math performance when both math and test anxiety and their interactions with the conditions were included in the model (β = -0.17, ^{2} ≤ .02).

Based on research by

The content of the written responses for participants in the expressive writing condition (

Participants reported a range of negative emotions, with 58% reporting test or math anxiety, 32% reporting specific but unrelated anxiety, 16% reporting hating math, and 26% reporting other negative emotions. Participants also reported a number of positive emotions, with 19% reporting self-confidence regarding the test and 50% reporting other positive emotions.

A series of one-way ANOVAs was used to explore if mentioning anything that fits into the categories above was related to reported state anxiety or to math performance. A significant relation was found for mentions of test or math anxiety (_{10} = 72.37) and hating math (_{10} = 2.36) such that those whose written response contained mentions of test anxiety or math anxiety, or hating math, reported higher levels of state anxiety, though the result for hating math is inconclusive based on Bayesian analyses. In addition, those who wrote about self-confidence regarding the test (_{10} = 1.87), or included other positive comments (_{10} = 11.56) reported lower levels of state anxiety, though the Bayesian results are inconclusive for self-confidence. There was no significant relation between reported state anxiety levels and writing about anxiety specifically unrelated to the test (_{01} = 2.16) or other negative comments (_{01} = 1.51), and both of these had inconclusive Bayesian results. In addition, there were no significant relations between any of the coded categories of writing content and math test performance (_{01}s < 3.31), which were generally just around the cutoff between inconclusive and support for the null hypothesis in the Bayesian analyses.

We have long known about the detrimental impacts of anxiety on math performance. However, there is less work investigating potential interventions for alleviating this anxiety and improving math performance. In this study, we examined the effectiveness of four recently-developed brief anxiety interventions used with math tests, and whether their effects interacted with math and/or test anxiety. We found only one intervention effect: the expressive writing intervention

Despite empirical evidence from at least one published study showing improved math performance for each of the interventions we tested, we did not find evidence of this effect for any of the interventions. Although there were fewer studies that had examined intervention effects on state anxiety, the two that had done so reported finding no effects on state anxiety, which our results corroborated (

There are a number of potential reasons why we found mainly null effects for our interventions. First, there may have been variablility in how participants interpreted the instructions, especially for the reappraisal as excitement condition, which could have been confusing to some participants. Second, each intervention was deliberately selected for feasible application and brevity when used within regular testing and classroom situations, and as such each intervention ranged from two seconds to five minutes in length and was administered in a single session. However, the short duration of the session, and the lack of repeated sessions, may have made it less likely for the interventions to have an impact on reported state anxiety or math performance. There was also variability across the conditions in the length of the intervention, so those that were shorter even among these may have been at a comparative disadvantage. Third, it is possible that our participants did not have high enough anxiety for our interventions to have an impact. Some researchers used high-pressure inducing procedures to increase anxiety within average anxiety samples (

The finding of overall relations between math and test anxiety and math performance fits with much past research examining this association (

It is important to note a number of limitations to this study, chief among them that this was not a

In regard to the state anxiety scale, after the test we asked participants to retrospectively report on the anxiety they felt before the test. This could have given us different results than if we had asked them to report their anxiety in the moment before the test or had we asked about the anxiety they experienced during or after the test. It is also possible that some participants misinterpreted what we meant by "before the test” and reported their anxiety at the beginning of the study session instead of immediately prior to the test itself. Thus, it is possible they reported on anxiety felt prior to being exposed to the experimental manipulation. In addition, because this report occurred after the test, participants may have been more relaxed and their report may not have been an accurate reflection of their prior anxiety, though some of our recent work suggests this is unlikely (

Our math test also had some issues with reliability. There is some evidence for its validity, however, as it is correlated with math anxiety at a similar strength (

Although past researchers found that each of these four interventions increased math performance, we did not find evidence for better math performance or lower state anxiety compared to a control group in the present study. Thus, we did not obtain the original performance effects for any of these interventions. We also did not find that they decreased state anxiety, which fits with past work on the two interventions that have tested this effect. These results suggest we may need to focus future research on other strategies for reducing the effects of math anxiety. These interventions were purposely selected because they were brief and easy to administer without large disruption to regular testing situations, giving them ecological validity. This, however, may not be enough of a dose to cause meaningful changes in state anxiety and math test performance. Perhaps these same strategies must be longer in duration and/or given across multiple sessions to have their intended effects. Alternatively, perhaps different interventions that borrow from current practice in Clinical Psychology for general anxiety would be more effective (e.g.

The Supplementary Materials contain the data, codebook, data analysis code, instruments and Supplementary Figure S1 and Tables S1 – S6 for this study (for access see

The authors have no funding to report.

The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

The authors have no support to report.