December 12, 2008

Test stress may affect math ability

A U.S. researcher suggests those with high working memory and math ability may be those most affected by test stress.

The study, published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, finds the subjects with the greatest capacity for math success were the most likely to choke under pressure.

Sian Beilock of the University of Chicago said working memory -- useful for solving math problems -- is diminished in stressful situations.

Beilock says working memory, also known as short-term memory, isn't only affected by stress but by the way the problems are presented. When arithmetic problems are written horizontally, more working memory resources related to language are used as solvers usually maintain steps by repeating them in their head. However, when problems are written vertically, they tend to solve them in a way similar to how they solve problems on paper.

Beilock tested stereotype-induced stress by reminding women of the stereotype that girls can't do math. The women who had been exposed to the negative stereotype performed poorly but only on the horizontal problems.