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Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 25(1), 39–47


C 2010 The Division for Learning Disabilities of the Council for Exceptional Children

The Contribution of Memory and Anxiety to the Math Performance of College


Students with Learning Disabilities
Frances Prevatt and Theresa L. Welles
Florida State University
Huijun Li
Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School
Briley Proctor
Florida State University

The impact of memory and anxiety on math performance was analyzed in a sample of 115
college undergraduates, all of whom had a diagnosed learning disability. The direct effects of
memory and anxiety on math performance were first examined, followed by an examination
of whether anxiety moderates the relationship between memory and math. Both memory
and anxiety were found to directly affect math performance. Additionally, anxiety served as
a moderator of the relationship between memory and math for most, but not all, measures
of math achievement. The moderating effect of anxiety was stronger for long-term retrieval
than for short-term memory. The relationships between memory, anxiety, and math were not
significantly different for males and females. These findings suggest that, when working with
individuals who have low anxiety but poor memory, enhancing memory strategies may be
effective for remediating problems in math. However, for those with high levels of anxiety, it
may be more efficacious to first ameliorate the anxiety, as working on memory may have a
negligible effect on math performance for these individuals.

The past 10 years have seen an increase in mandated support Memory


for students with disabilities (Individuals with Disabilities
Education Act, 1997, 2004). Concurrently, the number of The notion that the cognitive processing skills involving
students with learning disabilities who enter 2-year and 4- memory are significantly related to math performance in gen-
year colleges has increased dramatically (Henderson, 1999; eral is supported in the current literature (Beilock, Kulp, Holt,
Trainin & Swanson, 2005). Strawser and Miller (2001) re- & Carr, 2004; Casey, Nuttall, & Pezaris, 1997; Cassady, 2004;
ported that approximately 45 percent of students with mild Cirino, Morris, & Morris, 2007; Finney & Schraw, 2003;
learning disabilities who graduated from high school entered McGlaughlin et al., 2005; Miller & Bichsel, 2004; Trainin
a postsecondary institution. In fact, according to Trainin and & Swanson, 2005; Young, 2004). More specifically, studies
Swanson (2005), students with learning disabilities now rep- have found cognitive processing deficiencies in short-term
resent the largest group of college students with disabilities. and long-term memory for nondisabled college students who
However, students with learning disabilities may have a dif- performed poorly in math (Trainin & Swanson, 2005). Sev-
ficult time in college. Difficulty with college math appears eral studies on children experiencing math difficulties also
to be a likely reason for students with learning disabilities indicate that these individuals have difficulties storing and ac-
to drop out of college (McGlaughlin, Knoop, & Holliday, cessing math facts and knowledge from short-term and long-
2005). College students with learning disabilities spend a term memory (e.g., Bull, Johnston, & Roy, 1999; Hitch &
tremendous amount of time working on math; however, their McAuley, 1991; Swanson, 2006; Van de Sluis, Van de Leig,
severe deficits in math achievement persist, often leading & Jong, 2005). For example, Hitch and McAuley (1991)
to overall academic failure and attrition (Jones, Wilson, & explained such observations by suggesting that children with
Bhojwani, 1997). An understanding of the specific nature of math difficulties might have slower access to number rep-
math difficulties encountered by students with learning dis- resentations in long-term memory, which in turn may lead
abilities is important. It is likely that math deficits are linked to slow counting and low digit span that require short-term
to other factors, among them memory and anxiety. memory. Bull and Johnston (1997) also found that children
with low mathematics abilities performed significantly worse
than children with high ability in mathematics on short-term
Request for reprints should be sent to Frances Prevatt, PhD, Department
of Educational Psychology and Learning Systems, Stone 307 Florida State
memory tasks before reading ability was controlled. After
University, Tallahassee, Florida 32306. Electronic inquiries may be sent to reading ability was controlled, however, short-term memory
fprevatt@fsu.edu differences became insignificant between the two groups.
40 PREVATT ET AL.: MATH PERFORMANCE

What remained significant was the speed of identifying num- applied math performance for females, but not males. The
bers, which constitute representations that must be retrieved relationship between math ability and math anxiety for fe-
from long-term memory. One reason why processing speed males appears quite complex, and it is difficult to determine
differences are potentially important is that tests measur- the direction of the relationships, such as the relationship be-
ing processing speed are usually related to performance of tween math preparedness and math anxiety. For example, be-
short-term memory. It is unknown whether these types of cause math anxiety might reduce the number of math classes
findings for children are replicated in a college student pop- taken, the lack of preparation and experience in math might
ulation, when the complexity of the math tasks is at a higher increase the amount of anxiety in college students (Haynes,
level. Mullins, & Stein, 2004).
It is evident that there is empirical justification for the
study of memory, anxiety, and gender as they relate to the
Anxiety and Memory math achievement of college students, but little research has
been published on students with learning disabilities at the
Studies show that college students and adults with learning postsecondary level. This area is important, as enrollment
disabilities are highly affected by their level of anxiety in aca- in postsecondary institutions by students with documented
demic settings (Manglitz, Hoy, Gregg, King, & Moreland, learning difficulties is increasing. This study was designed to
1995). A number of studies have investigated the nega- evaluate the combined effect of memory and anxiety on the
tive impact of anxiety on memory capacity (Beilock et al., math performance of college students with diagnosed learn-
2004; Casey et al., 1997; Cassady, 2004; Kellogg, Hopko, ing disabilities. Although this work would be important for
& Ashcraft, 1999; Miller & Bichsel, 2004). For example, all students, it is especially important for those known to have
some research on adults and college students depicts the learning problems. Previous work has documented that there
negative impact of distracting thoughts and worries on math- are different effects for different types of math, for example,
ematics performance, resulting from disruption of the central Miller and Bichsel (2004) found differential effects for ap-
executive component of memory that is essential for com- plied and basic math. Based on previous research, it appears
plex problem solving (Beilock et al., 2004; Cassady, 2004; that utilizing only composite scores for math might cover im-
Miller & Bichsel, 2004). According to Beilock et al. (2004), portant fine-grained differences in the underlying processes
pressure-induced capacity limitations may result in perfor- that make up these constructs. Therefore, four different math
mance difficulties on tasks that require a sequence of mental subtests were utilized in this study, with the intention of
operations with demands on storage and processing (i.e., evaluating (a) fluency, (b) basic math facts, (c) knowledge
math calculation and problem solving). of symbols and concepts, and (d) the ability to analyze and
Anxiety has different manifestations and affects different solve math problems by reading and listening to a problem.
cognitive functions. For example, cognitive worry, as a ma- It was hypothesized that anxiety would moderate the rela-
jor component of anxiety, is manifested in negative self-talk tionship between memory and math. This effect was hypoth-
about one’s abilities. When college students are worried and esized to be stronger for long-term retrieval than short-term
anxious about studying or performing in academic situations, memory because long-term retrieval involves more compli-
they may be incapable of demonstrating their actual level of cated systems (e.g., associative memory, ideational fluency,
knowledge and skills (Weinstein & Palmer, 1990). Theo- meaningful memory, associative fluency, expressional flu-
ries of anxiety, including the processing efficiency theory ency, naming facility, and word fluency), and thus might be
(Eysenck & Calvo, 1992) and inhibition theory (Connelly, more susceptible to cognitive distractions associated with
Hasher, & Zacks, 1991) suggest that anxiety and worry about worry. Additionally, moderator effects were anticipated to be
performance will result in a reduction of memory capacity. more likely for the more complicated math tests (e.g., knowl-
Miller and Bichsel (2004) evaluated two types of memory in edge of symbols and concepts and the ability to analyze and
relationship to anxiety and math performance, verbal work- solve math problems by reading and listening to a problem).
ing memory and visual working memory; however, they did Solving basic math problems (e.g., math facts and fluency)
not evaluate long-term memory. were expected to utilize ingrained skills, less affected by
levels of anxiety.
Anxiety and memory were the primary variables being
Gender Differences in Math Performance
considered and therefore were analyzed together using a mod-
erator model. Due to the complexity of interpreting a three-
Some studies on gender differences in math performance
way interaction, gender effects were analyzed separately by
suggest that male college students tend to score higher than
evaluating whether the correlations among anxiety, memory,
females on tasks related to geometry and measurement and
and math differed for males and females. Due to inconsistent
females outperform male students in numbers and opera-
results in previous research, no directional hypotheses were
tions (Hagedorn, Siadat, Fogel, Nora, & Pascarella, 1999).
made regarding gender. Specific research questions were as
Furthermore, according to Miller and Bichsel (2004), gen-
follows:
der was found to moderate the relationship between anxiety
and math performance in college students, and this effect 1. Is there a gender effect for math achievement? Do the
differed depending on the type of math performance. For ex- correlations among anxiety, memory, and math differ
ample, math anxiety accounted for more of the variance in for males and females?
basic math skills for males than females, while math anx- 2. What are the direct relationships among different mea-
iety accounted for a significant amount of the variance in sures of memory (long term and short term), anxiety,
LEARNING DISABILITIES RESEARCH 41

and math (calculation skills, quantitative concepts, ap- follows: 48.7 percent Caucasian, 28.7 percent African Amer-
plied problems, and math fluency)? ican, 6.1 percent Hispanic, 2.6 percent Other, and 13.9 per-
3. Does anxiety serve as a moderator of the relationship cent Unknown. Twenty-five percent (n = 29) of the sample
between memory and math achievement? had a previous diagnosis of learning disabilities (learning
disability in writing, n = 3; learning disability in math, n =
4; learning disability in reading, n = 8; processing deficit,
METHOD n = 1; unknown area of disability, n = 13). Additionally,
15.7 percent (n = 18) reported a previous diagnosis of atten-
Participants tion deficit/hyperactivity disorder. The mean undergraduate
grade point average (GPA) of the sample was 2.40 on a
The sample consisted of 115 college students (56 percent 4-point scale (SD = .63). Other performance measures in-
male) who were diagnosed as having a learning disabil- cluded: SAT Verbal/Critical Reading score (M = 528, SD =
ity in math as a result of a comprehensive psychoeduca- 81); Quantitative/Math (M = 468, SD = 82); SAT Total (M
tional evaluation conducted at a clinic located on the cam- = 985, SD = 127), and GIA (M = 92, SD = 9.9).
pus of a large southeastern university. Trained master’s- and
doctoral-level students, under the supervision of licensed
psychologists, administered measures to assess cognitive, MEASURES
academic, and emotional functioning. In addition, the partic-
ipants completed informed consent documentation and pro- Math Achievement
vided demographic information. The clinic uses a modified
version of the aptitude-achievement consistency model to di- WJ-III ACH (Woodcock et al., 2001a) is an individually ad-
agnose learning disability, as developed by Flanagan, Keiser, ministered, norm-referenced test of academic achievement
Bernier, and Ortiz (2003). The aptitude-achievement consis- that may be administered to individuals from age 2 to over
tency model conceptualizes a learning disability as a specific 90. The instrument consists of 12 subtests within a standard
achievement deficit that can be explained by a corresponding battery, yielding composite standard scores in Broad Read-
deficit in one or more cognitive processes that are related to ing, Broad Mathematics, Broad Written Language, and Oral
the area of achievement deficit. In the university clinic, two Language clusters (Woodcock et al., 2001a). For the purpose
instruments were used to assess for learning disabilities: the of this study, the standard scores from the subtests for Cal-
Woodcock-Johnson III Tests of Cognitive Abilities (WJ-III culation, Applied Problems, Math Fluency, and Quantitative
COG; Woodcock, McGrew, & Mather, 2001b), and the Concepts were used. The subtests each have a mean of 100,
Woodcock-Johnson III Tests of Achievement (WJ-III ACH; and a standard deviation of 15.
Woodcock, McGrew, & Mather, 2001a). To meet the criteria
for a learning disability in math, a client had to first demon- Calculation
strate a weakness in one or more of the WJ III ACH math
clusters (e.g., Broad Math, Math Reasoning, Math Calcula- This test measures the ability to perform mathematical cal-
tion). Weakness was defined by a standard score below 85 culations that are presented in a traditional problem format.
(<16th percentile). In addition, the client had to demonstrate The median reliability is .85 in the 5–19 age range and .89
a weakness (<85) in one or more of the seven broad ability in the adult age range.
cluster scores from the WJ III COG (e.g., Comprehension-
Knowledge, Fluid Reasoning, Short-Term Memory, Long- Applied Problems
Term Retrieval, Processing Speed, Visual Processing, Au-
ditory Processing). The cognitive processing weakness also This test assesses an individual’s ability to analyze and solve
needed to be in an area that has been empirically linked to math problems by reading and listening to a problem, rec-
math performance (e.g., Fluid Reasoning, Comprehension- ognizing the required procedure and performing relatively
Knowledge). Finally, in order to ensure that the client was simple calculations. This test’s median reliability is .92 in the
not one with overall low cognitive ability, the client had to 5–19 age range and .95 in the adult range.
present with a General Intellectual Ability (GIA) score of at
least 85. The GIA is a composite score on the WJ III COG that
is analogous to a full scale IQ score; it is computed through Math Fluency
a differential weighting of the seven broad ability cluster
scores from the WJ III COG. Additional variables were also This test measures the ability to solve simple addition, sub-
considered during the diagnostic process, such as the client’s traction, and multiplication problems quickly within a pre-
history of math difficulties, the rule-out of other disorders scribed time limit. The median reliability of this test is .89 in
and conditions (e.g., anxiety, low motivation) that could be the 7–19 age range and .92 in the adult range.
the primary cause of the math difficulty, and the client’s re-
sponse to previous efforts to overcome the math difficulty
(e.g., attempt and response to tutoring, participating in study Quantitative Concepts
groups, meeting with the professor).
The mean age of the participants was 23.6 (SD = 8.9; This test consists of two subtests measuring the knowledge of
range 16–61). The race/ethnicity of the participants was as mathematical concepts, symbols, and vocabulary. This test
42 PREVATT ET AL.: MATH PERFORMANCE

has a median reliability of .90 in the 5–19 age range and .94 TABLE 1
in the adult range. Descriptive Statistics for the Study Measures

Females Males
Memory
Variable M (SD) Range M (SD) M(SD)
The WJ-III COG (Woodcock et al., 2001b) is an individually W-J III Test of Achievement
administered, norm-referenced test of cognitive functioning Applied 91.24 (7.89) 65–118 92.82 (8.41) 90.03 (7.28)
for individuals ranging in age from 2 to 90. The test con- Problems
sists of 10 subtests within a standard battery, yielding com- Calculation 91.67 (10.73) 63–119 92.64 (11.55) 90.92 (10.07)
posite standard scores in a variety of cognitive processing Math 87.12 (14.19 51–123 88.16 (11.80) 86.32 (15.83)
areas (clusters). For the purpose of this study, the compos- Fluency
ite standard scores in the areas of Short-Term Memory and Quantitative 90.74 (9.08) 68–114 92.14 (9.49) 89.73 (8.71)
Concepts
Long-Term Retrieval were used.
W-J III Tests of Cognitive Ability
Long-Term 92.42 (11.45) 45–139 92.02 (10.58) 92.72 (12.15)
Retrieval
Short-Term Memory
Short-Term 95.74 (14.21) 55–137 95.46 (15.93) 95.95 (12.85)
Memory
This cluster is an aspect of cognitive efficiency that measures LASSI 19.80 (7.89) 6–33 19.67 (7.72) 19.90 (8.07)
the ability to apprehend and hold information in immediate Anxiety
awareness and then use it within a few seconds. This cluster
Note: W-J III = Woodcock-Johnson III. LASSI = Learning and Study
has median reliabilities of .87 in the 5–19 age range and .92
Strategies Inventory.
in the adult range. The subtests that compose this cluster
include Numbers Reversed, a measure of working memory,
and Memory for Words, a measure of memory span.
shown to be positively correlated with GPA and is proposed
Long-Term Retrieval to be an effective tool for predicting academic performance
(Hulick & Higginson, 1989; Yip & Chung, 2002).
This cluster measures the ability to store information and
fluently retrieve it later in the process of thinking. This broad Data Analysis
ability requires the use of associative memory, ideational flu-
ency, meaningful memory, associative fluency, expressional Descriptive statistics for the study variables are given in
fluency, naming facility, and word fluency. The median relia- Table 1. As can be seen, the students in this sample had
bilities for this cluster are .87 in the 5–19 age range and .93 in mean math achievement scores on all four math tests that
the adult range. The two subtests composing the Long-Term were lower than the normative values. Using one-sample
Retrieval cluster include Visual-Auditory Learning, a mea- t tests, all four math tests were significantly lower than their
sure of associative memory, and Retrieval Fluency, a measure expected mean of 100 (p < .001 for all tests).
of ideational fluency.
Gender Effects

Anxiety A one-way analysis of variance was used to test for an effect


of gender on the four math outcomes. Overall, 56 percent
Learning and Study Strategies Inventory (LASSI; Weinstein of the sample were males. There were no significant main
& Palmer, 1990). The LASSI is a 10-scale assessment tool de- effects (p > .05 for all tests).
signed to measure students’ use of learning and study strate-
gies and methods. The subscale for anxiety addresses the Bivariate Relationships Among Memory, Anxiety,
degree to which students worry about school and their per- and Math Achievement
formance. The LASSI yields percentile scores; scores above
the 75th percentile indicate areas of success for the students; Table 2 shows the correlation matrix for the relationships
scores between the 50th and 75th percentile represent areas among the two measures of memory, the measure of anxiety,
that may need improvement. Scores under the 50th percentile and the four measures of math. Regarding memory, there
represent areas of significant weaknesses. In this study, raw were significant correlations between Long-Term Retrieval
scores were used. A higher raw score indicates lower levels and three of the four math subtests: Calculation, Applied
of anxiety. In our sample, the mean raw score was approx- Problems, and Quantitative Concepts. There were significant
imately 20, which corresponds to a percentile rank of 25; correlations between Short-Term Memory and all four of the
thus, overall, our sample experienced significant difficulties math subtests. Regarding anxiety, there were significant cor-
with anxiety. The user’s manual (Weinstein & Palmer, 1990) relations between LASSI anxiety and all four math subtests.
reports internal consistency (coefficient alpha) of .87 for the Finally, with regard to memory (two types) and anxiety, there
Anxiety scale. The norm group was composed of 1,092 col- was a significant correlation between Long-Term Retrieval
lege students from 12 different schools. The LASSI has been and anxiety.
LEARNING DISABILITIES RESEARCH 43
TABLE 2 TABLE 3
Correlations Among Memory, Anxiety, and Math Measures Regression Models for the Moderator Effects of Anxiety

1 2 3 4 5 6 Criterion Predictor R2 R2 Change p Change b p

1. AP Math Calculation
2. CL .66∗∗ Step 1 LTR .20 .02
3. MF .28∗∗ .43∗∗ Anxiety .19 .19 .00 .34 .00
4. QC .64∗∗ .62∗∗ .34∗∗ Step 2 LTR × Anxiety .26 .06 .00 .39 .00
5. LTR .44∗∗ .30∗∗ .10 .33∗∗ Math Fluency
6. STM .44∗∗ .26∗∗ .29∗∗ .40∗∗ .28∗∗ Step 1 LTR .02 .77
7. LA .29∗∗ .39∗∗ .28∗∗ .27∗∗ .26∗∗ .06 Anxiety .08 .08 .01 .27 .00
Step 2 LTR × Anxiety .08 .00 .79 .04 .74
Note: 1 = Applied Problems. 2 = Calculation. 3 = Math Fluency. 4 =
Applied Problems
Quantitative Concepts. 5 = Long-Term Retrieval. 6 = Short-Term Memory.
Step 1 LTR .38 .00
7 = LASSI Anxiety.
∗ p < .05, ∗∗ p < .01. Anxiety .23 .23 .00 .18 .03
Step 2 LTR × Anxiety .33 .10 .00 .48 .00
Quantitative Concepts
In order to further investigate the effects of gender, the
Step 1 LTR .27 .00
sample was subdivided and a series of correlations rerun for Anxiety .14 .14 .00 .20 .04
males and females. Specifically, correlations were run for Step 2 LTR × Anxiety .20 .06 .01 .37 .01
Long-Term Retrieval with all four math subtests, for Short- Math Calculation
Term Memory with all four math subtests, and for anxiety Step 1 Short-Term Memory .21 .01
with all four math subtests. A Fisher r to z transformation Anxiety .20 .20 .00 .38 .00
(two-tailed) was calculated to evaluate whether the correla- Step 2 STM × Anxiety .21 .01 .31 .16 .31
tion coefficients were significantly different across gender. Math Fluency
This analysis showed that none of the correlations were sig- Step 1 STM .27 .00
nificantly different for males compared to females (p > .05 Anxiety .15 .05 .00 .26 .00
for all tests). Step 2 STM × Anxiety .16 .01 .52 .11 .51
Applied Problems
Step 1 STM .43 .00
Anxiety as a Moderator
Anxiety .27 .27 .00 .26 .00
Step 2 STM × Anxiety .31 .03 .02 .34 .02
A moderator model would hypothesize that anxiety interacts Quantitative Concepts
with memory to produce an effect on math achievement. That Step 1 STM .37 .00
is, the relationship between memory and math performance Anxiety .21 .21 .00 .26 .00
would depend upon an individual’s level of anxiety. A signif- Step 2 STM × Anxiety .21 .00 .48 .12 .48
icant increase in the multiple R2 following the entry of the Note: LTR = Long-Term Retrieval. STM = Short-Term Memory.
interaction term into the regression analysis already contain-
ing the memory and anxiety variables would be indicative
of a moderator effect. Hierarchical regression was conducted anxiety. In the two other cases (Applied Problems and Quan-
in two sets; the first set utilized Long-Term Retrieval as the titative Concepts) there was a stronger effect for Long-Term
measure of memory, while the second set utilized Short-Term Memory.
Memory as the measure of memory. Each set ran a separate For the analyses with Short-Term Memory, anxiety served
analysis for each of the four math outcome measures. All as a moderator of the relationship between memory and math
variables were first centered around their means to facili- for one of the four math outcomes: Applied Problems. The
tate interpretation of the interaction terms and to control for model summaries can be seen in Table 3. The full model
multicollinearity (Aiken & West, 1991). Each regression fol- accounted for 31 percent of the variance in the Applied
lowed the same format: anxiety and memory were entered Problems math score. The interaction effect accounted for
in Step 1 and the interaction term (memory × anxiety) was 3 percent of the variance in math. Again, in most cases there
entered in Step 2. were significant direct effects for anxiety and memory, with
For the analyses with Long-Term Retrieval, anxiety served anxiety showing a greater effect for Math Calculation and
as a moderator of the relationship between memory and memory showing a greater effect for Applied Problems and
math for three of the four math outcomes: Calculation, Ap- Quantitative Concepts.
plied Problems, and Quantitative Concepts. The model sum- In order to understand the three significant interactions
maries can be seen in Table 3. The full models accounted for Long-Term Retrieval, these three regression models were
for a significant amount of the variance in math scores rerun separately based on level of anxiety, using noncen-
(Math Calculation–21 percent; Applied Problems–31 per- tered variables (Keith, 2006). The anxiety variable was di-
cent; Quantitative Concepts–21 percent). The interaction ef- chotomized into high and low, using a median split. The
fects accounted for 6, 10, and 6 percent of variance in math separate regression lines for high- and low-anxiety groups
scores, respectively. The unstandardized beta weights sug- illustrate the effect of the interaction. All three interactions
gested that, in general, there were significant direct effects followed the same pattern, only one visual representation will
for both memory and anxiety. In two cases (Math Calcu- be presented here, for illustrative purposes. Figure 1 displays
lation and Math Fluency) there was a stronger effect for the regression of Applied Math Problems on Long-Term
44 PREVATT ET AL.: MATH PERFORMANCE

and math performance, these studies have primarily focused


on school-age children.
Because college students with learning disabilities are at
risk for both math difficulties and performance anxiety, it is
important to study these variables. Few studies have asked
whether anxiety may have a moderating effect on the relation-
ship between memory and math performance, using a variety
of outcome variables. Additionally, gender differences were
examined due to previous studies suggesting that males and
females perform differentially in different applications of
math.
Math achievement was represented by scores on the four
WJ-III math subtests of Calculation, Applied Problems, Math
Fluency, and Quantitative Concepts. Because the finding of
gender differences in math achievement would have affected
the subsequent analysis, we first examined whether males
FIGURE 1 Comparison of the regression slopes of applied math problems
on long-term memory for high- and low-anxiety groups.
and females had different means scores on any of the four
math subtests. The finding of no gender differences in this
study was surprising, given previous research in support of
Retrieval, for two levels of anxiety. With low anxiety, the gender differences (Hagedorn et al., 1999; Miller & Bichsel,
slope of the regression line is significant, indicating that 2004). All participants were clinic-referred college students
memory has a significant impact on math achievement. The who received a diagnosis of a math learning disability. There-
R2 for this model is .35 (p < .00). The unstandardized beta fore, we were not studying math performance in the general
weight (.50) for Long-Term Retrieval indicates that, for ev- population of students, but rather math performance of stu-
ery 1 point increase in memory, the average impact on math dents with diagnosed disabilities. It may be that the gender
achievement is a .5 point gain. Alternately, for the high- variance in math performance is lessened due to a restriction
anxiety group, the R2 is .05 (p > .05), indicating that mem- of range in this population.
ory does not predict math gains when anxiety is high. Similar Our initial analyses confirmed that this sample of college
patterns were seen for the other two math achievement ar- students did, in fact, have math deficits in all four areas. We
eas, Math Calculation and Quantitative Concepts. In both found evidence of direct effects of memory and anxiety on
cases, for the low-anxiety group one would predict close to math performance. Short-term memory was significantly cor-
a .5-point gain in math achievement with a 1-point gain in related with all four math subtests, while long-term memory
memory. Alternately, for the high-anxiety group, the slope was correlated with all math subtests except Math Fluency.
of the regression line is nonsignificant, indicating that Long- Also, academic anxiety (as measured by the LASSI anxiety
Term Retrieval did not predict math gains. scale) was correlated with all four math subtests. This find-
For Short-Term Memory, the same procedure was fol- ing extends the work of Trainin and Swanson (2005) who
lowed, although in this case the only significant interaction found direct effects for short-term and long-term memory on
was in the model predicting Applied Problems. First, the math in nondisabled students. In our sample, with only one
anxiety variable was dichotomized into high and low, using a exception (long-term memory and math fluency) we found
median split. Then, separate regression results for high- and significant effects for short-term memory on four types of
low-anxiety groups were examined to see the effect of the math, long-term memory on three types of math, and anxi-
interaction. Results indicated that, with low anxiety, memory ety on four types of math. Clearly, there are substantial and
has a significant impact on math achievement. The R2 for this pervasive effects across a broad array of specific areas of
model is .40 (p < .00). The unstandardized beta weight (.31) functioning. However, it is the interactions among these con-
for Short-Term Memory indicates that, for every 1-point in- structs that provides new information.
crease in memory, the average impact on math achievement Consistent with our hypotheses, several significant inter-
is a .3-point gain. For the high-anxiety group, the R2 is .17, actions were found. Results showed that anxiety moderated
(p < .00), indicating that memory still predicts math gains the effect of long-term retrieval on three of the four math
when anxiety is high, but accounts for less variance. The subtests: Math Calculation, Applied Problems, and Quan-
unstandardized beta weight (.20) for Short-Term Memory titative Concepts. In all three cases, there were significant
indicates that for every 1-point increase in memory, the av- direct effects, as well as significant moderator effects. After
erage impact on math achievement is a .2-point gain. dichotomizing the sample into high- and low-anxiety groups,
it was found that a moderately strong relationship continued
to exist between long-term retrieval and math performance
DISCUSSION when anxiety was low. However, when anxiety was high, the
relationship between memory and math performance was
The primary purpose of this study was to examine the effect nonsignificant. In the case of Math Fluency, there were no
of memory and anxiety on the math performance of col- moderator effects; in this instance, when anxiety and mem-
lege students diagnosed with a learning disability in math. ory were simultaneously evaluated, anxiety accounted for a
Although previous research has suggested relationships larger amount of variance than did memory. In other words,
between memory and math performance as well as anxiety for some types of math problems, both memory and anxiety
LEARNING DISABILITIES RESEARCH 45

are important, but low anxiety will protect one against the central executive system be freed up to attend to cognitive
effects of poor memory skills. Alternately, for Math Fluency, tasks.
if one has anxiety, then memory becomes less important; the It is interesting that anxiety as a moderator showed a
effect of the anxiety is so strong that it has a much more pow- stronger effect in conjunction with long-term retrieval than
erful influence than long-term memory. This makes sense, as short-term memory. For long-term retrieval, anxiety mod-
the Math Fluency test is a speeded test of relatively simple erated the relationship for three areas of math functioning:
math concepts, and anxiety is likely to have a strong impact math calculation, quantitative concepts, and applied prob-
when under time pressure. lems. Alternately, for short-term memory, anxiety served
For short-term memory, it was found that anxiety moder- as a moderator in only one area of math functioning: ap-
ated the effect of memory in only one case, Applied Prob- plied problems. We would speculate, based on the work of
lems. This effect was similar to the interactions found for Woodcock et al. (2001b), that long-term memory is associ-
long-term retrieval and indicated that a moderately strong ated with more complex cognitive processes, including asso-
relationship exists between short-term memory and Applied ciative memory, ideational fluency, meaningful memory, as-
Problems when anxiety was low. However, when anxiety was sociative fluency, expressional fluency, naming facility, and
high, the relationship between memory and Applied Prob- word fluency. These abilities are more likely utilized in the
lems was nonsignificant. There were direct effects of anxiety three math tests found to be moderated by long-term retrieval.
and memory for the remaining three math outcomes. For Math calculation requires solving problems in a variety of
Math Calculation, the effect for anxiety was stronger than formats, with increasing complexity. Applied problems re-
the effect for short-term memory. Alternately, for Quantita- quires the combination of several abilities, including oral
tive Concepts, the effect for short-term memory was stronger comprehension, decoding, recognition, and finally, problem
than the effect for anxiety. Finally, for Math Fluency, the two solving. Quantitative concepts also combine several abili-
effects (anxiety and short-term memory) were similar. ties, including use of symbols, vocabulary, and synthesis.
The results of this study support previous findings sug- We would speculate that these more complex skills will be
gesting a strong relationship between anxiety and math per- affected by the interplay of anxiety and long-term retrieval.
formance (Manglitz et al., 1995). Whereas previous studies Alternately, short-term memory involves somewhat simpler
have examined the way in which anxiety affects math perfor- abilities, more consistent with the skills required for the test
mance (e.g., anxiety affects memory, which in turn affects of math fluency. In this subtest, the problems are very sim-
math), this study took a different angle and asked whether ple addition, subtraction, and multiplication, with speed of
the well-established relationship between memory and math responding being the primary focus. Perhaps for the simple
is moderated by level of anxiety. Our findings are consistent tasks, level of anxiety does not overshadow memory skills.
with two complementary theories of anxiety: the processing The skills are so simple that anxiety does not have a detri-
efficiency theory (Eysenck & Calvo, 1992) and inhibition mental effect on one’s memory. Therefore, we see only a
theory (Connelly et al., 1991). Both theories suggest that direct effect for memory. Alternately, with the more complex
anxiety and worry about performance will result in a reduc- skills, variations in anxiety can cause enough disruption to
tion of memory capacity. The processing efficiency theory differentially impact memory.
identifies intrusive thoughts as creating a diversion of atten- In summary, understanding the relationships of anxiety
tional resources, thus reducing the available pool of working and memory to math achievement may help professionals
memory. With regard to math, we would speculate that the in- who work with or teach college students with learning dis-
dividual’s anxiety about their math performance serves as the abilities to target specific areas for intervention, as well as
diversionary stimulus. The inhibition theory alters this theory prevent failure of required math courses. Our study suggests
slightly by suggesting that the anxiety prohibits the individual that, when both anxiety and memory deficits are present in
from inhibiting attention to the anxious thoughts. The finding students with a math disability, anxiety reduction should gen-
of a positive moderator (i.e., interaction) effect has important erally be a first step, prior to interventions aimed at memory
implications for individuals struggling in math in spite of ad- strategies. For example, in the clinic where this study took
equate long-term memory. If a student comes in with low place, a specific anxiety reduction curriculum is offered as
anxiety, then working on memory strategies can have a direct an intervention for students. This 8-week behavioral program
impact on their math performance. In fact, for every one- combines academic consultation, relaxation, and systematic
point gain in memory, they might expect a half-point gain desensitization. This type of program has a history of posi-
in their math achievement. However, if they have concomi- tive results (e.g., Hembree, 1988; King & Ollendick, 1998);
tant anxiety, recommendations regarding memory strategies however, it might be beneficial to also screen students for
might not have as large an impact on math achievement. It memory skills and perhaps adding memory strategies as a
is recommended that anxiety reduction techniques be em- second phase of treatment. It will also be important to evalu-
ployed first, and only then will memory enhancement strate- ate the specific math area that is problematic for the student
gies likely result in concomitant math achievement gains. as the level of complexity of the math deficit may determine
The two theories described above help to explain why mem- the relative impact of anxiety versus memory deficits. From
ory enhancement strategies will be less effective in the face a research standpoint, future work with larger samples might
of anxiety. The intrusion of the diversionary stimulus (anx- do an even more fine-grained analysis, subdividing long-
iety about math) and the inability to inhibit the intrusion term retrieval and short-term memory into their component
keep the individual from utilizing memory strategies. Only subscales (e.g., Visual-Auditory Learning and Retrieval, Re-
by first decreasing the performance-related worries will the trieval Fluency, Numbers Reversed, and Memory for Words),
46 PREVATT ET AL.: MATH PERFORMANCE

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About the Authors

Frances Prevatt is a professor in the Department of Educational Psychology and Learning Systems at Florida State University.
She is also codirector of the Adult Learning Evaluation Center. She earned her degree in clinical psychology from the University
of Virginia. Her research interests include attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and learning disabilities in college
students, as well as motivational aspects of academic success in college students.
Theresa Welles is currently a licensed school psychologist in the state of Florida and a doctoral candidate in the Combined
Counseling and School Psychology Program at Florida State University. Her research interests are in the areas of motivation,
anxiety, ADHD, and learning disabilities in a college population of students.
LEARNING DISABILITIES RESEARCH 47

Huijun Li is Director of Multicultural Research at Commonwealth Research Center, Department of Psychiatry, Beth Israel
Deaconess Medical center, harvard Medical School. She earned her degree in school psychology from the University of Arizona.
Her research interests include emotional well-being of children and adolescents with disabilities and from different cultural
backgrounds, as well as cultural relevant interpretations of psychiatric illnesses.
Briley Proctor is an associate professor in the Department of Educational Psychology and Learning Systems at Florida State
University. She is also codirector of the Adult Learning Evaluation Center. She earned her degree in school psychology from the
University of Florida. Her research interests include ADHD and learning disabilities in college students, as well as educational
policy and advocacy.