The researchers found that a moderate level of math anxiety was associated with high math performance among students who reported high math motivation -- that is, among students who reported that they valued math and embraced math challenges.
For those who are low in this kind of math motivation, however, high math anxiety appears to be linked with low math performance, the study said.
"Our findings show that the negative association between math anxiety and math learning is not universal," said Zhe Wang of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in the US.
"Math motivation can be an important buffer to the negative influence of math anxiety," Wang noted.
While some children might be anxious about math because it is extremely difficult for them and they feel threatened by it, others might be anxious about math because they want to perform well.
The researchers hypothesised that different underlying motivations for these two groups may have different consequences for math learning behaviours and performance.
The researchers first looked at data from 262 pairs of same-sex twins. The children, about 12 years old on average, completed measures of math anxiety and math motivation.
They also completed six tasks aimed at measuring math performance.
The results indicated that there were no differences in math anxiety and math motivation according to age, but they did show that girls tended to have higher math anxiety than boys.
When the researchers investigated math anxiety and math motivation together, a complex pattern of results emerged.
For children who reported low levels of math motivation, increases in math anxiety were associated with poorer performance.
For children who reported high math motivation, performance increased with anxiety, reaching peak levels with moderate anxiety.
As anxiety increased beyond this midpoint, math performance decreased.
The findings were published in the journal Psychological Science.
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