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November 2005
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Math Anxiety
PVCC faculty offers hope


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a student studying
Photo by Travis Lane
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Sean McDaniel dreams about becoming an astronaut. He has an excellent GPA and speaks passionately about his interests in science and the universe. He possesses the creative talent to build a robot and the engineering ambition to design a successor for the aging space shuttles. He has all it takes to graduate and bring his dreams to life, except for one thing: math. Sean is one of many PVCC students who face the colossal math roadblock to their dreams. Fortunately, there is hope.

According to Dr. James Rubin, PVCC Counseling Division Chair, math anxiety is not a real fear, but one that we create and feed. “If you are in a bar and a fight breaks out,” Rubin says, “that is a real fear.” According to Rubin, math is discounted by myths that simply are not true.

“There are no math police,” Rubin says. “Nobody is going to judge you.”

Rubin believes that students who struggle with math build a fear of failure that is different from other subjects. “Math is a concrete task,” Rubin says. “There is no room for error.” According to Rubin, it is impossible to remove fear and anxiety completely; however, a student can severely reduce the fear until it becomes unnoticeable.

Here are some tips on defeating math anxiety from PVCC math faculty:

1. Defeat the negative attitudes Maribeth Marquard, a mathematics instructor at PVCC, says it is important to recognize that a past issue probably exists. Some students with math anxiety were, “raised by parents who over-praised them or under-praised them. They are people who have been beaten down.”

Dr. Rubin suggests relaxing and achieving a solid mental state for success. He says that good math students have a ritual and do not avoid new challenges. “They have a realistic schedule and take responsibility.”

2. Recognize when you’ve made a mistake. Marquard says, “When people don’t understand math they avoid it.” Marquard believes that it is important to point out your successes. “Change your inner voice,” she says. “It is so powerful and automatic that you don’t even know it’s there.” If the math starts to get frustrating, don’t send shaming messages or insults to yourself. “Don’t try and convince yourself that you’re not stupid,” Marquard advises. “Do the math and notice when you do something wrong; then the confidence will follow.”

Rubin agrees that it is healthy for students to make mistakes and feel frustrated. However, progress will not occur unless the students understand that a problem exists. “Stop putting your finger into an electrical socket,” he says. “That just adds to the negativity.”

3. Change your environment. “Decide that you are going to be successful. Then look at people who are successful and see what they are doing that is different from what you are doing. Get into a place where people show you how it is done,” Marquard says.

Dr. Rubin believes that finding a consistent place to study where tutoring is available helps to relax and lock a person in a solid mental state, which is ideal for soothing anxiety. “Successful students get the tutoring,” he says, “and they have a ritual.” He suggests finding a regular place and time where you can face your math challenges.

4. Learn a different kind of study skill. “You can’t just decide you are going to be successful,” Marquard says. “You have to drill yourself over and over again.” Math is cumulative. In other subjects such as history, it is possible to skip a chapter and pick up what you missed at a later date. Math, on the other hand, is a step-by-step process. You have to understand Chapter 1 before you can progress to Chapter 2.

Marquard suggests that if your current method of learning is not working for you, then it is time to find another way. “Memory alone does not always work,” she says. “Use something that works.” Marquard believes that flash cards are an important and misunderstood tool. “Flash cards are not about speed,” she explains. “Read a flash card, then pause, then read another, and drill yourself.”

5. Change your perspective on math. “It’s simple, but it’s just not easy,” Marquard says. “Until you understand the difference, you are going to struggle.” Overcoming math anxiety is similar to other challenges such as quitting smoking and losing weight. It is hard, but possible.

It is beneficial to understand that math is not merely about numbers; it is also about problem solving. “Spelling is to the written word what arithmetic is to mathematics,” Marquard adds. “It is learning how to solve problems by understanding patterns. People who do math well are good problem solvers in general.”

Marquard believes that there are few careers that don’t require advanced math skills. “You give me a career and I’ll tell you how to apply math to it,” she states. Not having strong math skills can cripple workers in the job market. Math, along with problem-solving skills, is how people move up in their careers.

Rubin agrees that it is irresponsible to go through life relying on somebody else to do the math. “Challenge your belief that math anxiety is not a real fear and break down the myth that math is not practical. Your life depends on real-world applications.”