I love math. I majored in math. I take every opportunity I can to do math. I have t-shirts with jokes that only math lovers would understand. I do calculus for fun. I find logic and sudoku puzzles relaxing. I’m not scared of math so it confuses me to find so many people who are.
Each week, I receive at least one phone call from a student who is interested in taking a math course with us. These students ask the most questions. “Is it going to be hard?” “I haven’t done over 8th grade math since college. Am I going to be able to keep up?” “What if I’m not a math person?” “Do you think I’ll easily get lost?” These students who are asking about math classes have the greatest amount of anxiety about their potential course. I’ve also noticed in my research about enrollment trends of our professional development courses that as a whole, mathematics courses tend to be lower enrolling. Perhaps this is because teachers are only taking these courses if they are absolutely required to. Teachers who need credits but not a specific course are likely taking other courses that don’t quite scare them as much.
Often times it is hard for me to empathize with these nervous students but then I think about how easy it is to be anxious about something that is not your strength. For me, writing causes great anxiety. I happily left creative writing behind the moment I handed in my freshman composition course final paper. When I was asked to start blogging as a regular part of my job, I felt the blood drain from my face as a wave of panic came over me. Now, after months of writing I feel I have overcome my fear and am more comfortable sharing my thoughts with our readers. Yet, I still need to muster up some courage each time I sit down to tackle a new post and perhaps that’s the best I can come to expect.
Where does this anxiety come from? I don’t think my anxiety about writing has anything to do with my education. I believe that I had fantastic English/Language Arts teachers throughout the many stages of my education. However, I think that a lot of people’s anxiety about mathematics stems from their education or lack thereof. It’s no secret that our nation is behind when it comes to math and science. Here at Trinity Washington University, many first year students come to us from area public schools. Though they graduated high school, they may lack the math and writing skills necessary for them to be successful in their other courses. Our strong educational leaders in the College of Arts and Sciences have created a curriculum called the First Year Experience to bring struggling students up to speed in the areas in which they struggle. This helps students stay in college and complete their degree rather than dropping out after a very challenging first semester.
How can you help your students have less anxiety about math? For starters, a teacher should not be anxious themselves. Take one of our many Continuing Education courses in Math or try our Praxis I Mathematics Exam Prep course which can help you brush up on your basic math skills and address test anxiety. A confident teacher can be a calming factor to students.
Make math fun! There are so many times in a given day that we use simple math. You need math to figure out how many pizzas you need to order when you hang out with your friends. Kids who are interested in baseball have probably been taught by their parents, coaches, and mentors about batting averages. Why not use these “comfort zones” as a jumping off point to starting a lesson about percentages and fractions? One resource that plays more on this idea of using familiar situations to illustrate a mathematical point is called Math Doesn’t Suck. It targets middle school aged girls but has many great ideas for all students and is empowering for girls who struggle with math.
Math education also lends itself to technology. SMART Boards and iPads all make graphs, equations, and fractions come to life. There are so many apps in the math section of apple’s app store that I wish I had time to try them all. With an iPad you can see a 3-D view of a torus. My TI-83 never did that! I don’t know a whole lot about SMART Boards but I know that if we had had that instead of my teachers trying to draw overlapping graphs in multiple colored chalk, the concept would’ve been a lot clearer. I sat in on one of our SMART Board classes and got to see the instructor teach about using the SMART Board to create similar triangle and display complicated trigonometry graphs.
When it comes to math education, it’s not important to me that the United States is #1. What I think is important is that we teach our kids not to be afraid of it. We need to show them what doors can be opened by studying hard and learning the concepts. No matter what subject you teach, how can you bring math into your lesson and make it less scary?