A new study finds that kids who are motivated to do well in math perform best with a moderate amount of anxiety -- too little may bore them and too much may overwhelm.

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After reporting about education for eight years in two states, Washington and Ohio, I know only one thing for sure: We tend to underestimate the complexity of teaching and learning.

I learned to appreciate the complexity of what happens between the ears by studying an emerging field commonly referred to as Mind, Brain and Education, which brings together educators, neuroscientists and cognitive psychologists from around the world to explore how teaching and learning work on a biological level.

Here’s one recent example:

Researchers have long known that some kids dread math so much that it hurts their test scores, which has led educators to consider ways to dial down that anxiety.

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But a new study shows that a moderate amount of anxiety might help some students reach their potential.

Two researchers, one from Ohio State University and one from Virginia Tech (and colleagues), studied 262 pairs of young adolescent twins. The students answered two questionnaires designed to measure math anxiety and motivation (how much they valued math, enjoyed the challenge and wanted to do well.)

The researchers then gave the students a series of math tasks ranging from simple numerical estimation to complex problems.

For students who reported less motivation, the relationship between anxiety and performance was straightforward: the more anxiety they felt, the worse they did.

The relationship looked different for more motivated kids. Those with high anxiety also performed less well, as did those with low anxiety. Students with moderate anxiety performed the best.

That finding squared with more general cognitive psychology studies showing that too little anxiety fails to kick our brains into gear and too much overwhelms our ability to think straight, but a moderate amount helps focus attention and improve learning.

The study, published in the journal Psychological Science, cannot say whether moderate anxiety causes better performance in highly motivated students, but it’s certainly correlated with it — and  a follow-up study of college students showed the same pattern.

After studying neuroscience and cognitive psychology in the Knight Science Journalism Fellowship at MIT a few years ago, I keep close track of such studies, which are helping shed light on the complexities of teaching and learning.

I’ll be on the lookout for such research, so stay tuned.  And if you see something interesting, let me know.