From a student’s perspective, math can be an unforgiving and intimidating subject. There are three main reasons for this. First, math does not tolerate “almost” or “close enough answers. Second, math is often thought of as a “boy’s subject.” And third, if you don’t possess the kind of mind that performs mental math easily, more complicated concepts become nearly impossible to manage.
Reading, social studies, and language arts often evaluate a student’s understanding with subjective instruments like essays or other written responses. These exercises are assessed by a teacher looking for general understanding, or for creativity. Math, on the other hand, looks for cold, hard facts — if you do not know the answer, no amount of creativity will help you 6th grade go math. As a result, the sensitive and creative student who does not lack intelligence may still lack the ability to perform when it comes to calculations and math concepts. This, naturally, produces anxiety in more sensitive, less math-adept students.
Girls are especially subject to math anxiety. Unfortunately, our culture still has the sense that math and science are “hard” subjects that are naturally more suited to males than females. The good news is that this perception may be fading: a number of recent studies out of UMass Amherst found that female teachers tend to encourage female students to form better in subjects such as math, and other studies support the idea that there is nothing inherently “male” about math ability. This is good news but should really be a surprise to no one who has spent time in a classroom. Girls are simply every bit as capable as boys, but they may need someone, preferably a female role model, to demonstrate for them that fact.
Finally, math anxiety can be worsened by a weak foundation in basic operations. Students who are not “quick” in their mental calculations of the easiest tasks — 3 times 6, for example — are automatically challenged when the subject moves into more complicated ideas. The student may be perfectly capable of understanding Pi, or 2-step algebra, but if he or she is not automatic with multiplication or addition tables, grades will suffer. For this reason, math anxiety may be helped by the inclusion of basic math facts, for example flash cards of simple operations reviewed every day for 5 to 10 minutes.
These thoughts about the math phobic student are just the tip of the iceberg. Math anxiety is a fact of life for a great many people, but confronting the problem head-on with empathy and understanding will help all of us who work with or live with math-phobic young people.