Anxiety: The Problems
There are many students who hate or fear math. Often the problem is contagious. Fear or hatred of math is passed from parent to child, student to student, and teacher to student. Students and adults who dislike or avoid math often feel inadequate and think they are alone in their feelings. These thoughts are usually hidden, which interferes with the learning process and often leads to poor grades and limited career choices. Thus, an ongoing cycle of negative attitudes and failure can cause real damage in the form of stress, anxiety, and a negative self-image.
Math anxious students and adults use myths as excuses to keep them from confronting their feelings about math. We often hear “I don’t need math in my career.”, or “Some people just have mathematical minds.”, or “I just got way behind in my 9th grade algebra - I’ll never catch up.”
Anxiety: The Solutions
One – I don’t need math.
In truth, all careers use math, and math is an integral part of living. Proficiency in math is an important component of a successful life. Math is a part of all subjects – Science of course, but also English, History, and the Arts. Far too many people don’t consider a mathematical or scientific career because they think of themselves as “creative” and math is usually not taught as a creative subject. In truth, math is highly creative and good teachers learn to teach math creatively to all types of students, even those who consider themselves, “right-brained artist types”. To live well, we must all learn to think in a concrete, logical manner. To live fully, we must also learn to think in the abstract. The creative process of learning math is one of the best ways to enhance the capabilities of our minds. As one formerly math anxious student simply put it, “Math is much more than adding and subtracting. Math teaches us how to think.”
So, think back to those special teachers in our lives – the ones who could reach us and inspire. All of these teachers had something in common – they created an environment for learning – a classroom that felt safe to make errors and to take risks – a safe place open for discussion. That should be the goal for all classrooms.
Myth Two – The Mathematical
Mind. The myth of the mathematical mind is particularly damaging. An amazing number of people who hate or fear math think of themselves as somehow not as “smart” as the “math and science types”. Many people think males are inherently better at math, or that Asians are particularly good at math. In truth, these math “wizards” are simply meeting their parent’s expectations. Anyone can do well at math. But since math is a subject that builds upon itself, the secret is to not fall behind and to spend an appropriate amount of time to build math skills. Some students may need more time than others, so it is important that students take the time they need outside of class to stay current and gain understanding. And once a student has understanding, math is no longer mysterious – math is a comfortable part of every day life. And, of course, this knowledge is very empowering. Our life options are open. Our career options are open. We can, quite literally, do anything.
Three – I’ll never catch up.
Should a student fall behind (and this is the cause of almost all math failure and negative attitudes) the secret is to get appropriate help. A simple math review test can tell the student or adult where he or she began to have gaps in their knowledge and will provide a starting point for rebuilding math proficiency. Even if you are an adult and have no plans to return to school, it is not “too late” to gain an understanding of math. Hire a tutor for a few hours. Find out where your understanding got off track and have the tutor suggest some reading and skills practice. We won’t tell you that it is not rocket science, because rocket science is built on math. But, we will tell you that anyone can have an understanding of math – at any level. We have seen far too many math anxious students succeed to believe otherwise.
Put simply, and this may not be what you want to hear, understanding math involves getting help and working hard. However, the reward – a richer life and feeling good about yourself – is well worth the effort.
So people who succeed in math are not inherently smarter. They simply like math or, again, have parents who expect them to. Once people who have a fear or hatred of math understand that many, many people share those feelings – they are not alone – progress begins. We believe that every math class should begin with a day or so set aside for discussing student’s feelings about math. Teachers should develop answers for student’s questions – questions such as “Why do I need this stuff?” Teachers should also take this time to find out which students are behind in their foundations and begin to work toward getting all of the students up to the necessary level. Even if this takes several days, the time will be well spent, even if for some students it is just a helpful review. Teachers should also make it clear that no question is a stupid question and create a climate where students feel free to simply say, “I don’t understand”, because, as simple as this may sound, understanding is the key to doing well in math.
And finally, students must come to terms with the fact that they have the ultimate responsibility for learning. Good teachers may inspire and good parents may encourage. But, it is up to the student to change the way he or she feels about math and, for that matter, all of their education. For those of you who want to learn more about math anxiety, and perhaps, embark upon a journey toward overcoming the problem, take a look at our web page regarding the new video and book, Math!
A Four Letter Word.