Award Date

December 2016

Degree Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)



First Committee Member

Mark H. Ashcraft

Second Committee Member

Rachael Robnett

Third Committee Member

David Copeland

Fourth Committee Member

Gabriele Wulf

Number of Pages



Math anxiety is defined as “feelings of tension and anxiety that interfere with the manipulation of numbers and the solving of mathematical problems in a wide variety of ordinary life and academic situations.” (Richardson & Suinn, 1972). The effects math anxiety has on various tasks are overwhelming. Math anxiety has been shown to relate to poor educational attainment and avoidance of math courses (Hembree 1990). Research has shown that math anxiety can affect simple process like counting (Maloney, Risko, Ansari, & Fugelsang, 2010) to taxing working memory while solving a math problem (Ashcraft & Kirk, 2001). Additionally, gender also plays a role in math attitudes. Often times when primed with negative stereotypes, females perform worse on math tasks as compared to other females who were not primed and their male counterparts. To date, little is known about how math anxiety or gender might affect the performance on math-based working memory span tasks. Turner and Engle (1989) claimed that working memory tasks should transcend task dependence. They specifically state that a “memory span task could be embedded in a concurrent processing task that is unrelated to any particular skills measure and still predict success in the higher level task” (p.130 ) To test this they developed the OSPAN task. The main difference from the RSPAN task was that the OSPAN task required participants to verify the correctness of a math equation rather than a sentence. For example, the math equation follows a consistent formula: multiplication or division of 2 single digits and the addition of a third single digit (i.e. (6/3)+3=5). As with the RSPAN, a single syllable word is presented at the end of the equation for participants to recall. The OSPAN task consisted of three sets of 2,3,4,5, and 6 math operations. Turner and Engle (1989) did not find any differences in performance between the math and reading based working memory tasks. The results from this experiment show that individual differences can affect performance on these working memory tasks.

Those who were superior in math achievement performed better than those who were not superior in math achievement on the OSPAN. It appears that implicit stereotype threat associated with the OSPAN task was enough to cause performance deficits among females. Not only did they perform worse on the processing component, but they also recalled fewer words when working on the OSPAN as compared to the RSPAN and their male counterparts. These results suggest ability in a domain may not be the only individual difference psychologists using these tasks may encounter. Finally, this is the first study to show gender differences in performance on working memory tasks. The only study to date that has demonstrated gender differences in working memory tasks was conducted by Schumader et. al. (2003). They found differences in OSPAN performance, but this was after explicitly inducing stereotype threat before completing the task. Additionally, they did not have another non-math task like the RSPAN, to compare performance differences. They did not account for differences in math achievement, thus suggesting that performance differences may not be due to gender differences, but that math achievement may also play a significant role.


Gender; Math Anxiety; Working Memory Tasks


Cognitive Psychology | Psychology