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Thoughts on Math Anxiety and University Science Education

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A few things have gotten me thinking a lot lately about math anxiety among science students. First, I drafted my first teaching statement, which got me thinking seriously about pedagogy, classroom diversity, and the legacies of students taught in No Child Left Behind-era classrooms. Secondly, I’ve guest lectured and graded for an intermediate-level course on paleoclimatology, and have noticed a large spike in self-identified math phobia. These thoughts were catalyzed in part by the recent rash of “math is hard” or “I’m too cute to do math” clothing in this year’s back-to-school catalog for girls.

I can sympathize; my undergraduate background is in liberal arts, and I never took a college math class (though I took a number of advanced science courses like biomechanics and physics that required applied mathematics). As a masters student, it took me a while to flex my math muscles, and I had to essentially teach myself calculus for my first modeling course. I now use math every day, to some extent or another; while much of it happens inside-the-box of various statistical programs, understanding the mechanisms and assumptions behind a Bayesian age model or an ordination is essential to interpreting the results. It took me a while to get over my insecurities about my lack of a math-heavy biology background, and the only thing that ultimately did the trick was to get my hands dirty. I started with analyzing my own data, learned the language of probability, joined a Bayesian statistics discussion group, took short courses on time series analyses, and stopped skimming the calculus in modeling papers.

I’ve had students tell me that their math-phobias prevent them from being able to do a particular homework assignment. I’ve seen students drop a class the moment equations start marching across the chalkboard. My suspicion is that many students are drawn to conservation biology, physical geography, or ecology because they love the natural sciences or are interested in climate change but are intimidated by math, and they hope that these “softer” fields might offer a kinder, gentler path.

Math anxiety is a prevalent way for stereotype threat to manifest; committing to classroom diversity may mean that you accept the extra work of fighting the legacy of 13+ years of prejudice (all while also teaching students how to do research, write papers without plagiarizing, and think critically– many tasks that undergraduates have little experience with when entering a university classroom). Math-phobic students tend to avoid math, which means they may not only have a mental block to get over, but may also have inadequate training.

So what’s the way forward? Intermediate classes in climatology taught in the Atmospheric Science department at my university regularly use differential equations; should a similar course in Geography be taught as a “light” version? Should instructors forge ahead as usual, ignoring the portion of the classroom that drops, fails, or is simply miserable? Professors must consider the needs and abilities of their students, but also have an obligation to be true to the material they teach– it’s pretty difficult to give a student a mechanistic understanding of the importance of greenhouse gases to earth’s energy balance without using numbers, for example. On the other hand, department funding (and more) is pinned on putting students in seats, and a reputation for being “difficult” can be enrollment poison.

I try to impart a couple of things to math-phobic students. First, I tell them that math anxiety doesn’t arise because someone is incapable of understanding math, but because they think they can’t; in other words, the best cure for math anxiety is to be proactive about acquiring math skills. Getting a math tutor (which is often free in math departments) to help with homework, doing problems in a group, coming to a professor’s office hours, and taking a math class (ideally from someone who is familiar with stereotype threat) are first steps. Assuring students that math is something that they can do is crucial– and that for most people, it takes work (as opposed to, say, an innate ability). Secondly, I constantly reiterate that math is a language; it’s a way to communicate a concept (like an energy balance model for Earth’s temperature), and can be translated into plain English. Start with the principle that Earth’s energy balance model describes energy gained from incoming solar radiation, minus outgoing infrared radiation; this gives the equation context and makes it more approachable.

My prediction is that it’s probably going to get worse before it gets better. University educators alone can’t erase all of the legacies of primary and secondary education and institutional biases, but they can be proactive about the dangers of stereotype threat, and can work towards institutional policies and exercises (both at the classroom and the broader institutional level) that work to undo some of the damage of math anxiety. Graduate mentors can strongly encourage their students to gain the quantitative skills that will make them better researchers, and can provide opportunities to acquire those skills with hands-on data analysis. Fundamentally, addressing math anxiety is beyond the scope of one professor in one classroom; it’s going to take a multidisciplinary effort that spans questions of education reform in general, STEM diversity, and science literacy.

Do you suffer from math anxiety? Are you a recovering math-phobe? Are you noticing a trend in your own classrooms? Feel free to share your thoughts, strategies, and ideas in the comments.

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Jacquelyn Gill

3 replies

  1. I also came to the sciences from a liberal arts background, and have had to do a lot of catching up. I used to loathe math, but a few of my friends are doing DPhils in pure mathematics or physics and, by talking to them and reading a few popular math books, I see now that mathematics has a kind of beauty and elegance. So now, while I’m still not good with numbers, I have maths envy rather than math phobia.

    In high school, I never got the sense that math was anything other than a difficult tool for solving problems. I find its aesthetic value somewhat elusive, but for me, this is the thing – the only thing – that makes me want to learn more about it. Marcus du Sautoy does a good job of communicating math’s aesthetic appeal in his books.

    “Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty — a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture, without appeal to any part of our weaker nature, without the gorgeous trappings of painting or music, yet sublimely pure, and capable of a stern perfection such as only the greatest art can show. The true spirit of delight, the exaltation, the sense of being more than Man, which is the touchstone of the highest excellence, is to be found in mathematics as surely as poetry.” – Bertrand Russel


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