Department or Program


Primary Wellesley Thesis Advisor

Beth A. Hennessey


This study applied previous research findings on stereotyping and individual differences in the need for simple structure to an investigation of math anxiety. The same kind of indiscriminately broad categorical thinking that underpins social stereotyping was observed in math anxious students confronted with mathematical complexity. Study participants who scored high in the need for simple structure were significantly more likely to experience math anxiety and to have adopted the belief that math intelligence is fixed. In addition, this investigation revealed that participants’ implicit assumptions about the origins of math intelligence covaried with math anxiety. The potential benefits of introducing the conceptual underpinnings of math problems in a simple, straightforward fashion prior to increasing task difficulty were explored through the presentation of two progressively challenging counting tasks. While math anxious participants did significantly worse than their non-anxious peers on the initial simpler task, as complexity increased, math anxious individuals’ degree of success on the second, more challenging task paralleled that of their non-anxious peers. Taken together, these study findings inform our understanding of math anxious students’ cognitive barriers to mathematical comprehension and fluency and suggest specific teaching strategies that might be employed to address these issues.

Keywords: simple structure, math anxiety, implicit theory, education, gender