Applying cognitive psychology to education

Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

, Volume 14, Issue 2, pp 243-248

First online:

Working memory, math performance, and math anxiety

  • Mark H. AshcraftAffiliated withDepartment, University of Nevada, Las Vegas Email author 
  • , Jeremy A. KrauseAffiliated withDepartment, University of Nevada, Las Vegas


The cognitive literature now shows how critically math performance depends on working memory, for any form of arithmetic and math that involves processes beyond simple memory retrieval. The psychometric literature is also very clear on the global consequences of mathematics anxiety. People who are highly math anxious avoid math: They avoid elective coursework in math, both in high school and college, they avoid college majors that emphasize math, and they avoid career paths that involve math. We go beyond these psychometric relationships to examine the cognitive consequences of math anxiety. We show how performance on a standardized math achievement test varies as a function of math anxiety, and that math anxiety compromises the functioning of working memory. High math anxiety works much like a dual task setting: Preoccupation with one’s math fears and anxieties functions like a resource-demanding secondary task. We comment on developmental and educational factors related to math and working memory, and on factors that may contribute to the development of math anxiety.