# More timed test and maths anxiety references

### Do we now have the evidence? What would you predict?

After being contacted by Stephanie Lee, a journalist working for *The Chronicle of Higher Education*, and before the article Lee was writing about her was published, Professor Jo Boaler pre-emptively published a piece on the Stanford university website. Addressing specific concerns about the evidence she draws upon when making some of her claims, Boaler posted a link to a pdf containing a rebuttal of these concerns and references to additional evidence.

In the Lee article, I am quoted in relation to a claim Boaler has repeatedly made, suggesting timed timed maths tests cause maths anxiety and the specific claim that, “For about one third of students the onset of timed testing is the beginning of math anxiety”, a claim for which she includes a reference. You can read about this and how the reference trail goes cold here.

Maths anxiety is defined as a chronic condition. In other words, it is not a single experience, but an ongoing fear of engagement with mathematics, both in the classroom and out in the real world. Therefore, determining the cause of the condition is of interest to researchers.

In her pdf, Boaler does not address the fact that her original reference trail goes cold. Instead, she insists that, “…this statement is clearly an estimate, that draws from different scientific papers and decades of work in schools.” She then posts five new references that, “…support [Boaler’s] estimate and the links between anxiety and timed testing.” It is these references I wish to focus on in the remainder of this post.

**Suárez-Pellicioni, M., Núñez-Peña, M. I., & Colomé, À. (2016). Math anxiety: A review of its cognitive consequences, psychophysiological correlates, and brain bases. ****Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience****, ****16****, 3-22.**

This is an odd paper to cite in support of the contention that timed tests cause maths anxiety. It mentions timed tests only once:

“It has also been suggested that the early use of high stress techniques such as timed tests, rather than more developmentally appropriate and interactive approaches, leads to a high incidence of [maths anxiety] (Geist, 2010). We acknowledge that a test cannot be completely time-unlimited, but our suggestion is that teachers promote their [high maths anxiety] students’ performance by giving out such messages as, ‘Don’t worry if you don’t finish in an hour, I can wait until you finish,’ or, ‘Don’t worry about time, you’ll have all the time you need to finish the test.’”

Geist, 2010, is the third paper Boaler cites and so I will discuss that below.

**Estonanto, A. J. J., & Dio, R. V. (2019). Factors causing mathematics anxiety of senior high school students in calculus. ****Asian Journal of Education and e-Learning**** (ISSN: 2321–2454), 7(01).**

I had not heard of the *Asian Journal of Education and e-Learning* before. This paper is open access and so you can take a look at it yourself.

It is very short.

The authors surveyed 69 students from five senior high schools in The Philippines who were studying calculus. These students were selected because they had moderate or high anxiety, making a comparison of their responses to students without anxiety impossible within this study. Therefore, in principle, this paper cannot demonstrate that timed tests cause maths anxiety.

Sadly, but perhaps understandably, various maths experiences made these students anxious. For example, “Working on mathematicsematical problem,” [original spelling] and, “Listening to lecture in a mathematics class,” were associated with ‘high’ anxiety and, “Thinking about an upcoming mathematics test one day before,” and, “Being given a surprise quiz in mathematics,” were associated with ‘very high’ anxiety.

Unfortunate though these students are, the most this study demonstrates is that in individuals who already have maths anxiety, tests, alongside plenty of other mathematical experiences, can trigger anxiety. Which we already knew because that’s part of what defines maths anxiety.

**Geist, E. (2010). The anti-anxiety curriculum: Combating math anxiety in the classroom. ****Journal of Instructional Psychology****, ****37****(1).**

The first paper Boaler lists references the Geist 2010 paper in its discussion of timed tests. In the Geist 2010 paper, the abstract states that, “The paper also addresses the curricular issues that may lead to math anxiety such as high stress instructional methods and ‘timed testing’”. This seems speculative and not a clear causal claim.

The article is a review article and does not report on a specific study. It takes a ‘constructivist’ approach, criticising ‘skills based’ maths teaching and positively references Boaler’s earlier work:

“Worse, [mathematics] is often taught as if all the students are not just similar, but identical in terms of ability, preferred learning style, and pace of working (Boaler, 1997).”

As we now know, the idea that we must take learning styles into account when planning lessons is now widely regarded as a myth.

The section that comes closest to stating a link between timed tests and maths anxiety suggests timed tests can lead to a negative attitude to mathematics - which is not quite the same thing:

“Teachers begin to focus on repetition and speed or “timed tests” as important tools for improving mathematical prowess and skill which can undermine the child’s natural thinking process and lead to a negative attitude toward mathematics (Popham, 2008; Scarpello, 2007; Thilmany, 2004; Tsui & Mazzocco, 2007).”

So I followed these references.

Popham 2008, is not available as an abstract via Google Scholar and looks like another review article. Scarpello 2007 is a short magazine comment piece that contains no references and does not mention timed tests. If I have managed to find the correct reference for Thilmany, 2004, then it is bizarre. It is an extremely short magazine piece about programming a computer to simulate maths anxiety. Again, there are no references. Finally, Tsui & Mazzocco is probably the most relevant. Here is the abstract in full:

“This study was designed to examine the effects of math anxiety and perfectionism on math performance, under timed testing conditions, among mathematically gifted sixth graders. We found that participants had worse math performance during timed versus untimed testing, but this difference was statistically significant only when the timed condition preceded the untimed condition. We also found that children with higher levels of either math anxiety or perfectionism had a smaller performance discrepancy during timed versus untimed testing, relative to children with lower levels of math anxiety or perfectionism. There were no statistically significant gender differences in overall test performance, nor in levels of math anxiety or perfectionism; however, the difference between performance on timed and untimed math testing was statistically significant for girls, but not for boys. Implications for educators are discussed.”

This study is therefore about the effect of maths anxiety on test performance, not the effect of testing on maths anxiety.

**Jackson, C. D., & Leffingwell, R. J. (1999). The role of instructors in creating math anxiety in students from kindergarten through college. ****The Mathematics Teacher****, ****92****(7), 583-586.**

In this study, researchers surveyed 157 trainee teachers. They asked them a pretty loaded question: “Describe your worst or most challenging mathematics classroom experience from kindergarten through college.” 146 trainees described negative experiences — it’s interesting that 11 did not do so, despite the question. The researchers then broke these responses down by whether the experiences described took place in elementary school, high school or college.

This is not an assessment of maths anxiety because maths anxiety is an ongoing, debilitating condition that affects a subset of the population, whereas the question prompted respondents to list *any* kind of negative mathematics experience, regardless of whether they would fit the profile for maths anxiety or not. Surprisingly, given the way this paper has been cited, a wide range of negative mathematics experiences were described, from hostile or insensitive teachers, to difficulty memorising times tables, to fractions, to gender bias — “Girls were often ridiculed for not understanding the material” — to timed tests.

**Murtonen, M., & Titterton, N. (2004). Earlier mathematics achievement and success in university studies in relation to experienced difficulties in quantitative methods courses. ****Nordic Studies in Mathematics Education****, ****9****(4), 3-13**.

The abstract states:

“This study explores connections between earlier mathematics achievement in high school, success in university statistics and quantitative methods courses and experienced difficulties in quantitative methods courses. Earlier achievement in mathematics correlated with statistics grade in university studies, but not with quantitative methods course grade. Earlier achievement in mathematics was related to the experience of one’s own ability in mathematical subjects and quantitative methods, but it was not related to other experienced difficulties. Ability in mathematical subjects and quantitative methods was further connected to other difficulties experienced in quantitative methods. The experienced difficulties and achievement in university courses were not related.”

I cannot find any mention of timed tests. You can check the paper yourself. It does contain an extended discussion of the relationship between maths anxiety and ‘statistics anxiety’ and I guess that must have something to do with why the paper has been cited.

Finally…

**Newstead, K. (1998). Aspects of children's mathematics anxiety. ****Educational Studies in mathematics****, ****36****, 53-71.**

Honestly.

This is a study from the 1990s of six teachers, two of whom taught in an ‘alternative’ — for which I read constructivist — way and four of whom taught in a ‘more traditional’ style that involved using textbooks. Two more teachers were excluded from the analysis because they were hard to classify. As the paper states, this exclusion was ‘subjective’ and:

“It is interesting that the highest average total mathematics anxiety score was obtained by one of the classes which was in fact excluded from the comparison analysis because the teacher’s behaviour did not satisfy all of the observational criteria for the alternative teaching approach. This teacher had in conversation expressed concern that secondary schools would demand more formal recording and presentation of mathematics. This teacher’s concern about this matter and her teaching of some more formal methods may have lead to an inconsistent or mixed teaching style which could explain why her class had a high average anxiety total.”

The results, for what they are worth — not much — suggest that there were higher levels of anxiety about completing certain mathematical tasks in the classes of the four ‘more traditional’ teachers than the classes of the two ‘alternative’ ones.

Again, I can find no mention of timed tests.

**Conclusion**

I was not expecting to find evidence that timed testing causes maths anxiety. I was right. The references do not supply such evidence. They are a strange mix of opinion pieces and studies, none of which, in principle, could address the central hypothesis that timed tests cause maths anxiety. The first paper references the third which, in turn, references a couple of magazine pieces that don’t reference anything.

Yet, imagine approaching this field with the assumption that claims that are made are supported by the references listed. You would assume the link between timed testing and maths anxiety is demonstrated in these references.

I wonder how much educational research is similarly built on sand.

Thanks for your work on this. My PhD student researching affect also looked into the references for this claim and came to the same conclusion. This is just the tip of the iceberg...

In my recent experience with a Masters of Teaching I came to a similar conclusion about the quality of a lot of education research. It seems rife with problematic research design, and small sample sizes, often a N of 1, from which later research references and makes broad claims. It struck me that the whole tertiary education field operates on an incentive to make novel and interesting claims that contribute toward the fight against the spectre of neoliberalism. This then results in equity-focused, hyper-inclusive, wellbeing-obsessed ideas being produced and supported by previous specious research, that seek to undermine many of the practices that we know lead to better outcomes for the majority of students.

While I admit that I lack the references to substantiate this claim, if I write it in my diary, apparently it can constitute the body of evidence from which I can produce a paper to enshrine this as gospel.