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Exploring Working Memory in Maths Anxiety and Dyscalculia

It’s a fact that some students struggle with maths; however, there are potentially manyreasons as to why. Two common mathematics learning problems are Developmental Dyscalculia (hereafter referred to as simply dyscalculia) and Maths Anxiety. Dyscalculia is a learning disability in which students perform poorly in maths, yet general cognitive ability and performance in other subjects is normal. Maths anxiety, on the other hand, describes a condition in which students get nervous at the prospect of doing maths, whether taking a maths test, sitting through a maths lesson, or using maths in everyday life. Research has shown that maths anxiety has an inverse relationship with mathematics performance, which means that as maths anxiety levels increase, maths performance somewhat decreases. (Learn more about the two possible directions of the maths anxiety/math performance relationship here).

In order to help children who have these conditions it is important that we understand, as comprehensively as is possible, the underlying cognitive processes that may differentiate why students with each of these conditions struggle with maths. On the surface, dyscalculia and maths anxiety seem quite different from each other—dyscalculia is a cognitive learning disorder while maths anxiety relates to more emotional aspects. However, sometimes two seemingly different conditions can be linked to a deficit in the same cognitive domain. One candidate for a common factor is working memory, a temporary storage area in the brain for processing and manipulating information. Working memory impairments have been shown to correlate with poor maths performance in both dyscalculia and maths anxiety.

What we did

There are different types of working memory, primarily verbal working memory, visual working memory, and visual-spatial working memory*. Heretofore, no previous study had expored dyscalculia and maths anxiety together with various types of working memory tasks in order to disentangle how working memory deficits may be correlated with them. We tested a sample of 69 Italian school children (in grades 6 to 8) and divided the children into 3 groups—those with DD, those with MA, and a group of children with normal maths performance and no diagnosed learning disability, which we called the “Typically Developing Group”. The groups were all similar in reading comprehension performance, IQ, and general anxiety levels. The children were all given arithmetic and reading comprehension tests as well as tests of visual working memory, verbal working memory, and visual-spatial working memory capacity.

What we found

We found that the children in the dyscalculia and maths anxiety groups showed different types of working memory impairment. The dyscalculia group, when compared to the typically developing group, performed worse on the visual-spatial working memory task. This agreed with previous research which showed a link between DD and poor visual-spatial working memory ability3. The maths anxiety group, on the other hand, were more impaired in verbal working memory than the dyscalculia group. The maths anxiety group was also impaired in visual-spatial tasks but only when a higher working memory load was used (i.e. there were a large number of objects to be memorised). This finding supports the idea that anxiety may use up working memory resources which leads to poor maths performance4.

What Are the Real-World Implications?

Our finding, that children with dyscalculia have different patterns of working memory impairment than do children with maths anxiety, could have both educational and clinical implications. Having a better understanding of the characteristics of these two learning impairments could help in the development of effective interventions. For example, knowing that children with maths anxiety are likely to have an impaired verbal working memory can guide educators to give more scaffolding and resources to students when doing word problems in maths class. Similarly, extra support can be offered to children with dyscalculia (and maths anxiety when the load is greater) for maths tasks which require mental manipulation of objects.

Links to Articles

1.)           Mammarella, I. C., Hill, F., Devine, A., Caviola, S., & Szűcs (2015). Math anxiety and developmental dyscalculia: A study on working memory processes. Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neuropsychology, 37(8), 878-87.


Other Recommended Reading

2.)           Carey, E., Hill, F., Devine, A., & Szűcs, D. (2015). The chicken or the egg? The direction of the relationship between mathematics anxiety and mathematics performance. frontiers in Psychology, 6, 1-6.

3.)           Szűcs, D., Devine, A., Soltesz, F., Nobes, A., & Gabiel, F. (2013). Developmental dyscalculia is related to visuo-spatial memory and inhibition impairment. Cortex, 49(10), 2674-88.

4.)           Ashcraft, M. H. & Kirk, E. P. (2001). The relationships among working memory, math anxiety, and performance. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 130(2), 224-37.


* Verbal working memory involves the storage of verbal information and grammatical structures. Visual working memory involves the storage of visual information while visual-spatial also includes the dimensional element of storing information related to where objects are located in space.