Fear of MathIf 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