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Feliz1965Posted - 12 March 2007 16:2  Show Profile
Fear of Math

If this article started by saying “Math,” many of us would
feel a shiver crawl up our spines, just by reading that
simple word. Images of torturous years in those crippling
desks of the math classes can become so vivid to our
consciousness that we can almost smell those musty
textbooks, and see the smudges of the #2 pencils on our
fingers.

If you are still a student, feeling the impact of these
sometimes overwhelming classroom sensations, you are not
alone if you get anxious at just the thought of taking
that compulsory math course. Does your heart beat just
that much faster when you have to split the bill for lunch
among your friends with a group of your friends? Do you
truly believe that you simply don’t have the brain for
math? Certainly you’re good at other things, but math
just simply isn’t one of them? Have you ever avoided
activities, or other school courses because they appear to
involve mathematics, with which you’re simply not
comfortable?

If any one or more of these “symptoms” can be applied to
you, you could very well be suffering from a very real
condition called “Math Anxiety.”

It’s not at all uncommon for people to think that they
have some sort of math disability or allergy, when in
actuality, their block is a direct result of the way in
which they were taught math!

In the late 1950’s with the dawning of the space age, New
Math - a new “fuzzy math” reform that focuses on higher-
order thinking, conceptual understanding and solving
problems - took the country by storm. It’s now becoming
ever more clear that teachers were not supplied with the
correct, practical and effective way in which they should
be teaching new math so that students will understand the
methods comfortably. So is it any wonder that so many
students struggled so deeply, when their teachers were
required to change their entire math systems without the
foundation of proper training? Even if you have not been
personally, directly affected by that precise event, its
impact is still as rampant as ever.

Basically, the math teachers of today are either the
teachers who began teaching the new math in the first
place (without proper training) or they are the students
of the math teachers who taught new math without proper
training. Therefore, unless they had a unique,
exceptional teacher, their primary, consistent examples of
teaching math have been teachers using methods that are
not conducive to the general understanding of the entire
class. This explains why your discomfort (or fear) of
math is not at all rare.

It is very clear why being called up to the chalk board to
solve a math problem is such a common example of a
terrifying situation for students - and it has very little
to do with a fear of being in front of the class. Most of
us have had a minimum of one humiliating experience while
standing with chalk dusted fingers, with the eyes of every
math student piercing through us. These are the images
that haunt us all the way through adulthood. But it does
not mean that we cannot learn math. It just means that we
could be developing a solid case of math anxiety.

But what exactly is math anxiety? It’s an very strong
emotional sensation of anxiety, panic, or fear that people
feel when they think about or must apply their ability to
understand mathematics. Sufferers of math anxiety
frequently believe that they are incapable of doing
activities or taking classes that involve math skills. In
fact, some people with math anxiety have developed such a
fear that it has become a phobia; aptly named math
phobia.

The incidence of math anxiety, especially among college
students, but also among high school students, has risen
considerably over the last 10 years, and currently this
increase shows no signs of slowing down. Frequently
students will even chose their college majors and programs
based specifically on how little math will be compulsory
for the completion of the degree.

The prevalence of math anxiety has become so dramatic on
college campuses that many of these schools have special
counseling programs that are designed to assist math
anxious students to deal with their discomfort and their
math problems.

Math anxiety itself is not an intellectual problem, as
many people have been lead to believe; it is, in fact, an
emotional problem that stems from improper math teaching
techniques that have slowly built and reinforced these
feelings. However, math anxiety can result in an
intellectual problem when its symptoms interfere with a
person’s ability to learn and understand math.

The fear of math can cause a sort of “glitch” in the brain
that can cause an otherwise clever person to stumble over
even the simplest of math problems. A study by Dr. Mark
H. Ashcraft of Cleveland State University in Ohio, showed
that college students who usually perform well, but who
suffer from math anxiety, will suffer from fleeting lapses
in their working memory when they are asked to perform
even the most basic mental arithmetic. These same issues
regarding memory were not present in the same students
when they were required to answer questions that did not
involve numbers. This very clearly demonstrated that the
memory phenomenon is quite specific to only math.

So what exactly is it that causes this inhibiting math
anxiety? Unfortunately it is not as simple as one
answer, since math anxiety doesn’t have one specific
cause. Frequently math anxiety can result of a student’s
either negative experience or embarrassment with math or a
math teacher in previous years.

These circumstances can prompt the student to believe that
he or she is somehow deficient in his or her math
abilities. This belief will consistently lead to a poor
performance in math tests and courses in general, leading
only to confirm the beliefs of the student’s inability.
This particular phenomenon is referred to as the “self-
fulfilling prophecy” by the psychological community. Math
anxiety will result in poor performance, rather than it
being the other way around.

Dr. Ashcraft stated that math anxiety is a “It's a
learned, almost phobic, reaction to math,” and that it is
not only people prone to anxiety, fear, or panic who can
develop math anxiety. The image alone of doing math
problems can send the blood pressure and heart rate to
race, even in the calmest person.

The study by Dr. Ashcraft and his colleague Elizabeth P.
Kirk, discovered that students who suffered from math
anxiety were frequently stumped by issues of even the most
basic math rules, such as “carrying over” a number, when
performing a sum, or “borrowing” from a number when doing
a subtraction. Lapses such as this occurred only on
working memory questions involving numbers.

To explain the problem with memory, Ashcraft states that
when math anxiety begins to take its effect, the sufferer
experiences a rush of thoughts, leaving little room for
the focus required to perform even the simplest of math
problems. He stated that “you’re draining away the energy
you need for solving the problem by worrying about it.”

The outcome is a “vicious cycle,” for students who are
sufferers of math anxiety. As math anxiety is developed,
the fear it promotes stands in the way of learning,
leading to a decrease in self-confidence in the ability to
perform even simple arithmetic.

A large portion of the problem lies in the ways in which
math is taught to students today. In the US, students are
frequently taught the rules of math, but rarely will they
learn why a specific approach to a math problems work.
Should students be provided with a foundation of “deeper
understanding” of math, it may prevent the development of
phobias.

Another study that was published in the Journal of
Experimental Psychology by Dr. Jamie Campbell and Dr.
Qilin Xue of the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon ,
Canada , reflected the same concepts. The researchers in
this study looked at university students who were educated
in Canada and China, discovering that the Chinese students
could generally outperform the Canadian-educated students
when it came to solving complex math problems involving
procedural knowledge - the ability to know how to solve a
math problem, instead of simply having ideas memorized.

A portion of this result seemed to be due to the use of
calculators within both elementary and secondary schools;
while Canadians frequently used them, the Chinese students
did not.

However, calculators were not the only issue. Since
Chinese-educated students also outperformed Canadian-
educated students in complex math, it is suggested that
cultural factors may also have an impact. However, the
short-cut of using the calculator may hinder the
development of the problem solving skills that are key to
performing well in math.

Though it is critical that students develop such fine math
skills, it is easier said than done. It would involve an
overhaul of the training among all elementary and
secondary educators, changing the education major in every
college.

Source: Internet Article

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