High-stakes exams can determine one’s future in terms of promotion, graduation, acceptance into a university, or employment. School mathematics exams are especially high-stake in East-Asian cultures where examinations have long been a prime means of advancement. Fears over how math test performance may affect one’s future, or how family and peers might react can lead to considerable test anxiety. This can create a cycle where anxiety impairs performance, and impaired performance exacerbates anxiety.
Zuo & Wang [Frontiers in Psychology] used quantitative and qualitative methods to investigate how a mindfulness-based intervention affected math test performance in Chinese middle-school students.
The researchers selected an eighth-grade class of middle school students (67% male: age range = 12-13 years) in an urban area of Jiangsu Province, China. The study lasted for one month, during which the students took four weekly geometry tests rated as equivalent in difficulty. The first and third tests were taken as usual, but for the second and fourth tests, the students listened to a 15-minute audio tape prior to the test.
The audio tape contained a breath-and-body focused meditation and included relaxation instructions. The tape also instructed students to imagine having negative thoughts and emotions during a math test, and to identify these thoughts and emotions non-judgmentally and return to present-moment awareness.
After the fourth test, students participated in group discussions about whether they found the meditations useful. Two students who benefitted from meditation and two students who did not were selected for subsequent in-depth interviews. The discussion and interviews were transcribed, coded, and thematized to offer qualitative insights into how the meditations affected student math anxiety and self-efficacy.
The results showed that students performed better on average after the meditations than without them (Cohen’s d = 0.27). All math tests were scored on a 10-point scale, with an average score of 6.73 without meditation and 7.11 with meditation.
The qualitative analysis revealed that the meditations helped students to focus more on math problems in the moment, worry less about performance outcomes, and obsess less over test time-constraints or difficult problems. The students who didn’t benefit reported finding the meditations “mysterious” or “magic” and associated them negatively with Buddhist religion.
The study shows a mindfulness meditation specifically designed to address math anxiety can objectively improve math exam performance. Qualitative interviews revealed that the students who benefited from meditation were able to focus more on solving math problems without being distracted. The study is limited by its reliance on a single classroom sample and only four measurement points.
Zuo, H., & Wang, L. (2023). The influences of mindfulness on high-stakes mathematics test achievement of middle school students. Frontiers in Psychology, 14.
Link to study