Mathematics anxiety and learning styles: What is the relationship in elementary preservice teachers?

Sloan, Tina

The study investigated the relationship between elementary preservice teachers’ mathematics anxiety levels and learning style preferences. Subjects included 72 preservice teachers at a midsized southeastern U.S. university who were at the end of their third year of study. The subjects completed the Mathematics Anxiety Rating Scale and the Style Analysis Survey (SAS). Scores obtained on the two instruments were analyzed using Pearson product-moment correlations. Eleven of the SAS subscales were examined. The global subscale was the only one related to mathematics anxiety at the p

Mathematics anxiety is prevalent among the preservice teacher population (Hembree, 1990). This is cause for concern, considering that teachers who possess higher levels of mathematics anxiety may unintentionally pass on these negative feelings to their students (Wood, 1988). Some researchers have proposed that mathematics anxiety may stem from teaching methods that are conventional and rule bound (Tobias, 1993). This rule-based methodology is most often employed by elementary teachers who possess high levels of mathematics anxiety and negative attitudes toward mathematics (Bush, 1989; Karp, 1991). Moreover, mathematics instructors who teach primarily through lecture and rote memorization of algorithms often neglect to meet the learning styles of all students and, therefore, may unintentionally perpetuate mathematics anxiety (Hodges, 1983; Zaslavsky, 1994). These instructors are more likely to implement practices that are contrary to the standards proposed by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM; Merseth, 1993). The NCTM standards advise teachers to use a variety of techniques and instructional strategies that will benefit all types of learners in the classroom (NCTM, 1989,2000).

As a response to this problem, studies have been conducted to investigate the causes of mathematics anxiety and its relationship to other constructs. Mathematics anxiety has been described as a multidimensional construct with cognitive as well as affective roots (Bessant, 1995). This construct has been related to personality type, negative attitude toward mathematics, mathematics avoidance, mathematics background, instructor behaviors, level of mathematics achievement, lack of confidence, and negative school experiences (Betz, 1978; Hadfield & McNeil, 1994; Harper & Daane, 1998; Hembree, 1990; Jackson & Leffingwell, 1999; Ma, 1999; Stuart, 2000; Trujillo & Hadfield, 1999).

Although mathematics anxiety has been investigated as to its relationship to various constructs, minimal research has been conducted as to its relationship to learning styles. Those studies which have been done reached little consensus. McCoy (1992) reported mathematics anxiety was most prevalent among tactile– kinesthetic learners, while Onwuegbuzie (1998) determined mathematics anxiety was positively correlated with auditory preferences. When overall brain mode preferences of 1,813 teachers and administrators were studied, McCarthy (1987) reported the following composition: (a) right-mode preference, 43.1%, (b) left-mode preference, 49.2%, and (c) whole brain (global/analytic) preference, 7.7%.

Since little research has been done in the area of learning styles and mathematics anxiety of elementary preservice teachers, this study was undertaken to add to that body of knowledge. The learning styles of elementary preservice teachers were paired with their levels of mathematics anxiety to determine if there was a correlation between mathematics anxiety and learning styles.


The study involved 72 elementary preservice teachers (66 females and 6 males) at a mid-sized southeast– ern U.S. university. Sixty-one were elementary education (K-6) majors, while 11 were majoring in special education. Sixty-nine were Caucasian, while 1 each was African-American, Native American, and Asian. All had completed at least two college mathematics courses.

Two instruments were used to obtain the data: the Mathematical Anxiety Rating Scale (MARS) and the Style Analysis Survey (SAS). The MARS is a 98-item instrument consisting of brief everyday-life and academic situations pertaining to mathematics (Suinn, 1972). The instrument uses a Likert scale with a range of not at all to very much. A total score is calculated by assigning a value of 1 (low anxiety) to 5 (high anxiety) to each item and then adding the values. Richardson and Suinn (1972) reported a test-retest reliability coefficient of .97. Evidence of validity was provided by a study that revealed negative correlations between the MARS and the Differential Aptitude Test (Suinn, Edie, Nicoletti, & Spinelli, 1972).

The SAS is a 110-item instrument designed to identify how individuals prefer to learn, concentrate, and perform in both educational and work environments (Oxford, 1990). The instrument has 11 subscales and uses a Likert Scale with the following responses: 0 = never; 1 = sometimes; 2 = very often; and 3 = always. Cronbach reliability coefficients for the subscales ranged from .73 to .89. The subscales are combined into five major categories: (a) Category 1 – using physical senses (visual, auditory, hands-on), (b) Category 2 – dealing with people (extroverted, introverted), (c) Category 3 — handling possibilities (intuitive, concrete-sequential), (d) Category 4 – approaching tasks (closure-oriented, open), and (e) Category 5 – dealing with ideas (global, analytic). Scores for each of the five categories are determined by summing the values of 0 to 3 assigned to each of the 10 items related to the category. If the scores in each category are within 2 points of each other, subjects are considered to be combinations of each category. For example, subjects may be categorized as global, analytic, or global/analytic depending on the closeness of their scores.

In order to determine if there was a correlation between mathematics anxiety and learning styles, a correlation was done between the MARS and the SAS. Scores obtained from the MARS and each of the SAS subscales were analyzed using Pearson product-moment correlations.


As indicated in Table 1, only one subscale of the SAS (global) was related to mathematics anxiety at the p


The results indicated that there was a relationship between mathematics anxiety and a global learning style. A higher level of global learning was related to higher levels of mathematics anxiety. However, only 7.8% of the variance in mathematics anxiety was accounted for by a global learning style. Other variables, such as instructional methods, mathematics achievement levels, confidence in doing mathematics, and levels of mathematics anxiety, may account for more of the variance. Investigation of these variables as they relate to learning styles might be conducted in future studies.

Researchers have characterized global learners as holistic, spatial, divergent, intuitive, and imaginative (Edwards, 1989; McCarthy, 1997; Oxford & Anderson, 1995). Oxford (1990) described the global learner as one who looks for the big picture immediately, might have trouble with details, is more interested in fluency than accuracy, and likes learning that is integrative and contextual. In essence, global or right-brain dominant individuals approach problems in an intuitive manner, whereas most mathematics courses are taught through systematic problem solving in a step-by-step linear fashion. Additionally, mathematics problems are often directed toward finding the one right answer. However, global learners prefer open-ended tasks and approach problems in a divergent manner, while analytic learners prefer traditional, sequential, and rule-based instruction (Dunn, 1981). All types of learners are capable of learning mathematics, but some types do not learn as well when taught in the traditional manner that has been prevalent in mathematics (Tobias, 1993). People who approach learning from a global perspective sometimes experience difficulties in mathematics courses, which have traditionally emphasized sequential, step-by-step, deductive and rule-based instruction (Oxford & Anderson, 1995). Although this study indicated that as global orientation increased mathematics anxiety increased, previous research has suggested that other types of learners may exhibit mathematics anxiety as well (McCoy, 1992; Onwuegbuzie, 1998).

According to Dunn and Dunn (1978), students learn faster and with greater ease when teachers gear instruction to students’ learning styles. College instructors who work with preservice teachers might be able to provide more of an awareness of learning styles. Various strategies tied to learning styles could be explored to help preservice teachers build a repertoire of multifaceted instructional techniques to use in their eventual classrooms. Preservice teachers who recognize that students differ in learning styles might be taking the first step in reducing the mathematics anxiety of those students.


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Tina Sloan

Athens State University

C.J. Doane and Judy Giesen

University of Alabama

Editors’ Note: Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to C. J. Daane, Box 870232, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, AL 35487.

Electronic mail may be sent via Internet to

Copyright School Science and Mathematics Association, Incorporated Feb 2002

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved

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