Symbolic number ordering strategies and math anxiety

Cognition and Emotion 37 (3):439-452 (2023)
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Abstract

Math anxiety results in a drop in performance on various math-related tasks, including the symbolic number ordering task in which participants decide whether a triplet of digits is presented in order (e.g. 3-5-7) or not (e.g. 3-7-5). We investigated whether the strategy repertoire and reaction times during a symbolic ordering task were affected by math anxiety. In study 1, participants performed an untimed symbolic number ordering task and indicated the strategy they used on a trial-by-trial basis. The use of the memory retrieval strategy, based on the immediate recognition of the triplet, decreased with high math anxiety, but disappeared when controlling for general anxiety. In the study 2, participants completed a timed version of the number order task. High math-anxious participants used the decomposition strategy (e.g. 5 is larger than 3 and 7 is larger than 5 to decide whether 3-5-7 is in the correct order) more often, and were slower in responding when both memory- and other decomposition strategies were used. Altogether, both studies demonstrate that high-math anxious participants are not only slower to decide whether a number triplet is in the correct order, but also rely more on procedural strategies.

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