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Maths anxiety

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  • 1. 1. What is mathematics anxiety? Mathematics anxiety has been defined as feelings of tension and anxiety that interfere with the manipulation of numbers and the solving of mathematical problems in a wide variety of ordinary life and academic situations (page 2). … Right. Basically from what I understand anxiety is fear, and hence mathematics anxiety is a fear of mathematics. Like fear, there are many degrees to it. Not everyone passes out from hearing the word „trigonometry‟, though almost everyone tries to excuse themselves from the room. It‟s a magic word, much like „please‟ and „thankyou‟. Mathematics anxiety is a phenomenon that is purely psychological, stemming from a person‟s inability to grasp mathematics (or so he believes). Like all anxieties, the mere possibility of having to go through with it is horrifying. It is, in fact, possible for mathematicians themselves to experience mathematics anxiety just like actors do sometimes get stage fright. A simple example illustrated by the author who is often asked to do mental computations just because she is a mathematician. Now while the masses like to think physicists are all mechanical freaks and mathematicians are human calculators, fact it the two things are utterly irrelevant. I once had a lecturer who could not do double-digit multiplication in his head, but is absolutely brilliant in group theory. However when society has put a label on something, there comes the innate desire to live up to that label. But if it‟s something that we‟re not (like human calculators) then over time we can grow to dislike it, or fear it. Hence, a mathematician may freeze when asked to do mental computation. 2. When does it begin? Maths anxiety can begin the day you learn to add 1 + 1. The first maths teacher you ever had would most likely be your mother or father, and if he/she introduces mathematics asATIQAH L AIZAN D20081033644
  • 2. a rote-memorizing, dull subject then this impression is likely to stay on until you get a teacher who can make you think otherwise. However in the Malaysian context as has been observed, this kind of teacher is as rare as finding an albino among our people. Our teachers are shaped by the demands of society, and if society demands rote-memorizing drones then the teachers will someone bow to the inevitable, and train rote-memorizing drones. 3. Why does it occur? The causes of mathematical anxiety are listed as follows: a. Teacher personality and their style of teaching b. Public examinations and their effect c. Affective domain – the self-factor, such as personality, perception d. Feelings, worries, difficulties (memory, innate disability) e. Parental expectations – their aspirations and standards f. Peer group influences g. Relevance – the usage of mathematics in everyday life. Reflecting from personal experience, I don‟t remember any great maths teachers in my life. I thoroughly detested my Additional Mathematics teacher for he was a chauvinist pig and a sleazy man who made my hair stood on end. My Modern Math teachers were unfortunately so bland that they were utterly forgettable (and hence forgotten). However they did not influence my attitude towards mathematics other than as a reminder to not be boring, forgettable or disgusting. While it holds true that the educator‟s enthusiasm will pass on to the student, in my opinion it takes either a VERY charismatic educator, a VERY terrifying one or a VERY disgusting teacher to leave a lasting impression on a student‟s mind. Otherwise they‟d all just fade into the background. Public examinations. 99% of my students wholeheartedly agree that the only reason why they‟d try to learn the many organs in their body or how to calculate the angle of a leaning tree is because they want to get to university. Apparently if you don‟t get a placeATIQAH L AIZAN D20081033644
  • 3. in university you will die a fiery death. Wow. In some ways I think they fear public examinations more than God. Maybe that‟s why so many become useless after they finish SPM. I didn’t do well, might as steal some bikes before I die. This attitude is incredibly alarming, simply because to me the new generation is one with a short-term goal. When exams become the center of their universe, you know something is wrong. Feelings, worries, difficulties. Due to the norm conception that giving the wrong answer is unacceptable in math, people are anxious about getting it right. They‟re afraid everybody else knows how to do it and if they make a mistake they‟d be a laughingstock. As a side-effect unless they‟re 100% sure they‟re right, they‟re not going to relax – and for real paranoids even that might not be enough! The concept of „repeated trials‟ apparently do not exist in our society. If you fail the first time, you‟re shot to pieces. But that‟s a treatise for another topic. Parental expectations, peer group influence. In one word: human factor. We humans are creatures of society. We mirror ourselves in other people. What is accepted by the majority of the society is „right‟. If our loved ones say we should excel in math then we‟d walk on our hands to make sure their expectations aren‟t disappointed. This creates an extraordinary dilemma, especially if parents want their children to buckle themselves to their table and study and their friends (the second loved group) wants them to have fun. 4. Who does it affect? Anyone who learn mathematics can be affected by maths anxiety, but people with low self-esteem, poor memory and/or poor academic achievement are especially susceptible to it. It is human nature to stay away from things we think we‟re going to be good at. For instance I am not built like a runway model and hence I do not go near bodyhugging clothes and skinny jeans (Tight Clothing-anxiety). People who think they‟re bad at mathematics will stay away from anything that requires anything more complex than multiplying single digits. Even myself, being a maths trainee teacher loathe double- checking my monthly credit cards statements because of all the odd cents in it. My students dislike geometry subjects and turn pale every time I announce I‟m going to callATIQAH L AIZAN D20081033644
  • 4. someone to the front to answer a question. All the sudden they‟re suffering from indigestion and need to go potty. Remarkable, really, considering all I want them to do is draw a tangent line to a circle. However I feel that the possibility of developing maths anxiety decreases with age, particularly once a person enters adulthood. This is because two of the major factors involved with maths anxiety are public examinations and peer pressure. The former occurs only in teenage and youth years while the latter practically disappears by adulthood. While it is possible for adults to develop maths anxiety, it is not likely they will reach the critical stage that would need medical/counseling intervention. 5. What effect does it have? If you have Tight-Clothing Anxiety then you will avoid tight clothing. Similarly the direct effect of mathematics anxiety is maths-avoidance. Math-avoidance can be caused by the fear experienced from contact with mathematical anxiety. Kogelman and Warren (1978) stated that it is not a new phenomenon that a large segment of the population fears mathematics. By avoiding these threatening situations, though, the math-anxious seriously handicap themselves in both their daily lives and job opportunities. Thus the math-anxious, by avoiding mathematics, are cut off from full participation in our increasingly technological society (page 19). Technically I am not in favor of making people learn things they do not want to learn. Knowledge must be searched out, to be researched, not handed on a platter with a silver spoon to match. It is the human willingness and dedication to traverse deserts and jungles that allow us to catalogue nature‟s diversity. Nobody does those things on orders, not unless they‟re at gunpoint. As I continued my teacher training, I realized the lack of curiosity, the thirst for knowledge is the true reason for the decline in creative and critical thinking. My students find it amazing that I can prattle on for hours at end about car engineering and how aATIQAH L AIZAN D20081033644
  • 5. rainbow is formed. I find it amazing that they don‟t know why the sky is blue! I question them on simple things like the water-delivery system in their homes, or how a dryer cycle dries their clothes. If something is outside of their textbook, they won‟t know it. But at the same time they dislike learning because they dislike exams. It‟s an incredible paradox. I find an effect to this is they have short-term memory. Once the exams are over, they leave their brains on the table and emerge as pure as a sheet of white cloth. Which is not good. Most problem sets are designed so that the first few problems are rote, and look just like the examples in the book. Gradually, they begin to stretch you a bit, testing your comprehension and your ability to synthesize ideas. Take them one at a time. If you get completely stuck on one, skip it for now. But come back to it. Give yourself time, for your subconscious mind will gradually formulate ideas about how to work the exercise, and it will present these notions to your conscious mind when it is ready. About a third of the students in any given class, on any given assignment, will look the exercises over, and conclude that they don‟t know how to do it. They then tell themselves, “I can‟t do something I don‟t understand,” and close the book. Consequence: no homework gets done. About another third will look the exercises over, decide that they pretty much get it, and tell themselves, “I don‟t need to do the homework, because I already understand it,” and close the book. Consequence: no homework gets done. 6. How do we overcome / eliminate maths anxiety? First things first: Internal control. A positive attitude will help in overcoming maths anxiety both for students and teachers. However for teachers, positive attitudes come with quality teaching for understanding which often isnt the case with many traditional approaches to teaching mathematics. In simpler terms, to make maths fun for your students, you have to understand the essence of mathematics to pass it on to them.ATIQAH L AIZAN D20081033644
  • 6. Encourage your students to ask questions, to be determined to understand the math behind the rote. If students don‟t want to ask or are too shy to ask, goad them by playing games or make a competition out of it. Often students will overcome their reticence when it involves a prize of some sort. After some time the prizes will no longer matter if enough positive results are made. If you feel you‟ve understood a topic but still can‟t seem to get the questions right then practice regularly. Often the concept learnt must be followed by practice. It‟s a bit like knowing the road map for a place you‟ve never been to. Sure you memorized the map, but you‟d still need to drive around and get lost a few times to truly know the layout of the place. Often students are too shy to ask in class because they don‟t want to be seen as stupid by their peers. It‟s all part of the cool factor. As a teacher these students must be quickly identified and personal coaching (private or otherwise) be given. Another way is to assign a „buddy‟ who can study with them, usually the person sitting next to them. Personally I find that letting students do work in pairs is more effective than individually or groupwise because it‟s easier for them to admit their loss to just one peer. If peer teaching does not work, a personal private tuition teacher is the next (more expensive) option. Be persistent and dont overreact when students make mistakes. Some of the most powerful learning stems from making a mistake. Often it is the fear of making mistakes that keep them quiet, and force them to copy others‟ work. They will feel relieved that they do not make mistakes, but often then learn nothing from copying others‟ work blindly.ATIQAH L AIZAN D20081033644