The harmful effects of academic anxiety on student performance have long been recognized. However, the consequences of math anxiety on engineering students are not widely studied. To what extent do engineering students suffer from math anxiety? How does it affect their performance? Our study addresses those questions by examining student learning in the mathematically demanding topic of electromagnetics.

Our subject-specific math anxiety survey revealed that 16 percent of undergraduate electrical engineering students suffered from high math anxiety. The high-anxiety students had been significantly less successful in pre-engineering math and physics courses, and they perceived their math abilities to be notably lower than students with low or medium math anxiety.

We found a significant decline in performance scores with increasing math anxiety. The relationship was especially strong in workout problems that measured procedural fluency in electromagnetics—which require students to employ knowledge, methods, and rules within the relevant representation forms.

The decline was less evident in test scores that measured students’ conceptual understanding. In fact, the students with high math anxiety performed better in the concept test than did students with medium math anxiety. These findings indicate that the decline in procedural performance in electromagnetics was distinctly related to math anxiety. The variations in conceptual performance, however, were not clearly related to anxiety.

The study has important implications for mathematics-heavy engineering disciplines. Instruction could take a broader view of what type of knowledge is valued and assessed in engineering courses. In curriculum design, there could be more emphasis on conceptual knowledge, which triggers less anxiety among low-achieving students.

Electromagnetics workout problems put heavy demands on working-memory capacity, since they require procedural fluency and problem-solving skills. Because our results show a significant decline in exam scores with increased math anxiety, it is possible that math anxiety disturbs the capacity of the working memory, causing lower procedural performance in electromagnetics. One explanation for the performance decline among high-math-anxiety students is that their lesser math abilities have led them to avoid mathematics-related tasks and consequently have made them less competent in mathematics. Our survey, as well as some prior studies, suggests that there could be a temporary reduction in the available working-memory capacity of high-math-anxiety individuals when their anxiety is aroused. This reduction eventually causes these students difficulties when they perform mathematical tasks. The competence beliefs, such as confidence and persistence in math, together with worry, use up a share of the limited resources of the working memory. Hence, the high-math-anxiety individuals have fewer resources to tap for procedural processing.

Another possible implication of why math anxiety affects procedural but not conceptual performance is that for certain students, the conceptual better matches their learning style. In particular, students who tend to experience anxiety when doing mathematics perform better on exams that assess their conceptual understanding than those that measure their procedural fluency.

Overall, students considered electromagnetics useful and worthwhile for their studies. The high-math-anxiety students especially saw electromagnetics as relevant for their studies. However, of concern for instruction is that high-math-anxiety individuals not only felt less confident about their math abilities but judged themselves as being less persistent in mathematical problem-solving.

Increasing the variety of assessment instruments can be a way of reducing math anxiety and supporting students’ individual learning styles. Faculty members should consider math abilities as volatile, not stable, capabilities and seek ways of encouraging low-achieving students to practice and persist.

*Johanna Leppävirta is a research scientist in the University of Aalto’s school of electrical engineering, department of radio science and engineering in Helsinki. *

© Copyright 2011

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Washington, DC 20036-2479

Web: www.asee.org

Telephone: (202) 331-3500