University of Oulu

Throndsen, T.U., Lindskog, M., Niemivirta, M. and Mononen, R. (2022), Does mathematics anxiety moderate the effect of problem difficulty on cognitive effort?. Scand J Psychol, 63: 601-608.

Does mathematics anxiety moderate the effect of problem difficulty on cognitive effort?

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Author: Throndsen, Terje Ulv1; Lindskog, Marcus2; Niemivirta, Markku3,4;
Organizations: 1Department of Special Needs Education, University of Oslo, Oslo, Norway
2Department of Psychology and Department of Education, Uppsala University, Uppsala, Sweden
3School of Applied Educational Science and Teacher Education, University of Eastern Finland
4Department of Education, University of Helsinki, Helsinki, Finland
5Teachers, Teaching and Educational Communities, University of Oulu, Oulu, Finland
Format: article
Version: published version
Access: open
Online Access: PDF Full Text (PDF, 0.2 MB)
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Language: English
Published: John Wiley & Sons, 2022
Publish Date: 2022-10-21


A negative relationship between mathematics anxiety (MA) and mathematics performance is well documented. One suggested explanation for this relationship is that MA interferes with the cognitive processes needed when solving mathematics problems. A demand for using more cognitive effort (e.g., when performing harder mathematics problems), can be traced as an increase in pupil dilation during the performance. However, we lack knowledge of how MA affects this relationship between the problem difficulty and cognitive effort. This study investigated, for the first time, if MA moderates the effect of arithmetic (i.e., multiplication) problem difficulty on cognitive effort. Thirty-four university students from Norway completed multiplication tasks, including three difficulty levels of problems, while their cognitive effort was also measured by means of pupil dilation using an eye tracker. Further, the participants reported their MA using a questionnaire, and arithmetic competence, general intelligence, and working memory were measured with paper-pencil tasks. A linear mixed model analysis showed that the difficulty level of the multiplication problems affected the cognitive effort so that the pupil dilated more with harder multiplication problems. However, we did not find a moderating effect of MA on cognitive effort, when controlling for arithmetic competence, general intelligence, and working memory. This suggests that MA does not contribute to cognitive effort when solving multiplication problems.

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Series: Scandinavian journal of psychology
ISSN: 0036-5564
ISSN-E: 1467-9450
ISSN-L: 0036-5564
Volume: 63
Issue: 6
Pages: 601 - 608
DOI: 10.1111/sjop.12852
Type of Publication: A1 Journal article – refereed
Field of Science: 516 Educational sciences
Funding: This work was supported by the Norwegian Research Council [Grant number: 283396], for RM.
Copyright information: © 2022 The Authors. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology published by Scandinavian Psychological Associations and John Wiley & Sons Ltd. This is an open access article under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs License, which permits use and distribution in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited, the use is non-commercial and no modifications or adaptations are made.