Research Article: When approximate number acuity predicts math performance: The moderating role of math anxiety

Date Published: May 2, 2018

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Emily J. Braham, Melissa E. Libertus, Kimmo Eriksson.


Separate lines of research suggest that people who are better at estimating numerical quantities using the approximate number system (ANS) have better math performance, and that people with high levels of math anxiety have worse math performance. Only a handful of studies have examined both ANS acuity and math anxiety in the same participants and those studies report contradictory results. To address these inconsistencies, in the current study 87 undergraduate students completed assessments of ANS acuity, math anxiety, and three different measures of math. We considered moderation models to examine the interplay of ANS acuity and math anxiety on different aspects of math performance. Math anxiety and ANS acuity were both unique significant predictors of the ability to automatically recall basic number facts. ANS acuity was also a unique significant predictor of the ability to solve applied math problems, and this relation was further qualified by a significant interaction with math anxiety: the positive association between ANS acuity and applied problem solving was only present in students with high math anxiety. Our findings suggest that ANS acuity and math anxiety are differentially related to various aspects of math and should be considered together when examining their respective influences on math ability. Our findings also raise the possibility that good ANS acuity serves as a protective factor for highly math-anxious students on certain types of math assessments.

Partial Text

In today’s society, it is becoming increasingly important for people to be able to make sense of mathematical information. Yet, many adults struggle when using math in everyday situations, such as choosing the best deal on a cell phone contract or interpreting statistics to make informed decisions about their own health. What factors contribute to difficulties with mathematics? Do these factors interact to influence math performance and if so, how? The present paper will explore two specific factors: math anxiety and the foundational understanding of quantities that is at the core of the approximate number system.

Most research on the role of ANS acuity and math anxiety for math ability has examined these factors in isolation. In the few exceptions, mixed results are reported about the relation between ANS acuity and math anxiety, and their influence on math performance [29,31–33]. The present study yielded four main findings, which we will discuss in more detail below. First, we did not find a significant correlation between ANS acuity and math anxiety. Second, math anxiety was a unique significant predictor of only one math assessment: Math Fluency. Third, ANS acuity was a unique significant predictor of both Math Fluency and Applied Problems. Finally, there was a significant interaction between math anxiety and ANS acuity on Applied Problems.