Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


School of Education


Learning mathematics has been identified as a significant source of anxiety for many students. This anxiety places a burden on working memory, which is additional to the cognitive load associated with the learning task. Cognitive Load Theory (CLT) has informed empirically derived design principles for instructional materials that provide optimal learning support through consideration of human cognitive architecture. Worked examples are one instructional technique proposed by CLT to reduce load on working memory and support learner engagement. The assumption in this study, in the domain of mathematics, is that task complexity and the burden on working memory while completing mathematics tasks is likely to contribute to high levels of mathematics anxiety. However, there has been little research to date that investigates the relationship between CLT and affective aspects of learning such as anxiety. The focus for this thesis was to investigate whether instructional materials designed in accordance with CLT principles, specifically incorporating worked examples, could assist learners with high maths anxiety. As worked examples are an instructional technique to make efficient use of limited working memory, it is contended their application could reduce the anxiety of mathematics learners during maths instruction.

Three experiments were conducted to explore this proposition. These experiments examined learner performance, cognitive load and learner anxiety for tasks of varying levels of element interactivity. In each of the three experiments, participants were assigned to conditions using instructional materials that were designed in accordance with CLT principles (Condition 1) or were non-compliant with the principles of CLT (Condition 2). Participants were from both secondary and tertiary education settings.

In summary, there was three key findings from this research. Firstly, this study found that participants who reported high mathematics anxiety reported higher cognitive load than participants who reported low mathematics anxiety. Secondly, participants with high mathematics anxiety in Condition 1 achieved higher performance scores, experienced lower cognitive load and experienced lower levels of anxiety than participants with high mathematics anxiety in Condition 2. Finally, CLT has previously attested the effect of working memory capacity overload being restricted only to the learning of complex tasks, that is, tasks high in element interactivity. In this study, the worked example effect was also evident for participants who reported high mathematics anxiety students when solving tasks of low element interactivity. This was due to the additional load on working memory resulting from anxiety.

This study thus confirmed that instructional materials designed in accordance with Cognitive Load Theory principles can offer support for students with high maths anxiety. The three experiments in this study were limited to algebra content within the domain of mathematics and future research could investigate these findings in other areas of learning. This research advances understanding of how mathematics instruction can be designed to support anxious students so as to facilitate reaching their full potential in learning mathematics content. Teachers should consider the inclusion of worked examples in mathematics instructional materials for highly anxious learners. This research extends cognitive load theory by investigating the effective instructional design of both simple and complex tasks, and has shown there is a link between working memory and affective aspects of a learner. These findings suggest Cognitive Load Theory may provide instructional guidelines to support highly anxious learners by providing working memory support, and this necessitates further research.



Unless otherwise indicated, the views expressed in this thesis are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the University of Wollongong.