Math Anxiety — How Ridiculous!

Dr. Thomas Hickson, Geology

ScienceDaily (Oct. 31, 2012) - Mathematics anxiety can prompt a response in the brain similar to   when a person experiences physical pain, according to new research at the University of Chicago.

This was the first paragraph of a short summary article that recently hit my Facebook page. The friend that posted it prefaced it with the comment that comprises the title of this piece. The short story is that anticipation of completing a math problem lights up the same portion of our brains that activates when we experience pain. The stronger your math anxiety, the more that part of your brain flashes on functional MRI (fmri) scans.

This article isn’t about fmri scans or that study. It’s about my friend’s comment. You need to know this friend. He’s a university professor at a state university, undergraduate only. He’s an amazing teacher who has pretty much single-handedly built his geology program into a strong, vibrant place.  
He deeply cares about his students and is one of the most nurturing, conscientious teachers I have ever met. So his comment startled me and triggered my response:

As someone who loves math, has taken math past differential equations, and that has confronted math anxiety personally, through meditation AND medication, I can assure you, amigo, that math anxiety is as real as a heart-attack!

I teach between 60 and 100 students in introductory lab science courses every year here at St. Thomas.  I have seen the students that cannot add fractions, re-arrange an equation to solve for ‘x’, or calculate the slope of a line.  I have stood in the halls with math, engineering, physics, chemistry, and biology faculty and kvetched about how most of our students cannot do basic arithmetic and lower-level algebra.  So there are times when I have slipped into my friend’s perspective, mainly when I’m feeling particularly grumpy and have just taught a lab that involves anything quantitative.

Here’s the catch:  I should know better. 

I stopped taking math after college algebra, in my freshman year of college.  It was my only ‘D’.  Ever.  I majored in a non-quantitative social science field because I feared math, even though I loved geology and science.  As my graduation from my undergraduate college approached, I had an insight that it might be helpful to strengthen my quantitative skills (everything I was reading at the time that interested me had math and statistics in it that I could not follow).  I took a trigonometry class credit/no-credit to alleviate my stress.  On the day of the final I panicked and cornered the professor ten minutes before class.  He calmed me down enough to allow me to complete the test.  I passed.  To this day I have no idea what my actual grade was in that class.

My first calculus test

I entered the calculus sequence in my fifth year in college.  I took excellent notes.  I rocked every homework assignment.  Calculus dealt with things that were real:  movement, volumes, shapes, forces.  I loved it.  For the first time, math had a connection to me.  My professor, a wirey Miss Frizzle with perpetual chalk dust on her hair and behind (from leaning on the chalk tray), handed out the first exam.

My hands started to shake.  I began to sweat.  I ran my fingers obsessively through my hair.  I couldn’t complete a single problem.  I failed.

I had to figure out a way to deal with this.  I knew I could do this math, but I could not take the exams.  My solution was to study until about 45 minutes before the exam.  Then I would find a quiet place, not unlike the leather room here at UST, and I would quietly sit and calm myself.  I then walked calmly over to the classroom and arrived five minutes late:  none of that OCD looking over notes and cramming.  I needed to be calm.  My grades steadily rose and I got A’s in calculus I and II.  I had done it.  I had conquered my self-diagnosed math anxiety.

On to MIT

I went on to complete an M.A. in my undergraduate field, but then took some graduate geology courses that were transformative:  I was meant to be a geoscientist.  I had to go into geology.  The connection to this field was electric in me.  Worse yet, I wanted to do a Ph.D. with the guy that wrote the textbook for the course that really jazzed me, and he taught at MIT, math and engineering capital of the world, a regular playground for math geek thoroughbreds.  What was I thinking even applying there?  When I was accepted, I was both ecstatic and terrified.  So I took more math in my last semester of my masters, just to get back in the swing of things.  I did well.

At MIT my advisor said I had to take fluid mechanics and differential equations, both quantitatively intense courses, even more so at a place like MIT.  I recall on my first day of fluid mechanics, the professor wrote this equation on the board:

 Hickson math image 1

and then expanded it to this:

 Math image for Hickson article

I didn’t even know what those dang upside-down triangles were, let alone all the weird curly-cue ‘d’s and ‘p’s!  Differential equations class was not much better, but at least it felt like calculus.  The math anxiety flooded back instantly.  I failed my first exams in these courses.  So much riding on these grades.  My graduate career!  My dreams of becoming a geology professor!  I couldn’t even do math that MIT sophomores could do before breakfast.  I was doomed.  I went to see the doc.

Blockin’ them betas

A visit to student health services and a great psychiatrist confirmed a diagnosis of math anxiety.  It was nice to have a name about what was wrong with me, but what to do about it?  Apparently, this malady was so common at MIT that most of the students, according to the doc, were taking low-dose beta blockers—the same medication given to folks with high blood pressure—to help them overcome their anxiety.  “You see,” she said, “when you take a math test, you experience the fight-or-flight reflex, your adrenaline kicks in, but you know you can’t fight or fly, so you freeze up.  No one has time to sit quietly and think as a lion is charging them, so their brain shuts down and their body responds.  We need to stop your body from responding.”

So I took beta blockers twice, once for each of my high stress, super-quantitative classes and right before the exam.  I rocked the tests.  No sweat.  No shakes.  No blanking out.  No dizziness.  No headache.  I learned, after this, that I could do math and I have never taken beta blockers again.  I even took more math at MIT!

Here’s the deal:  I still cannot do higher level math in front of people.  When I teach quantitative material in my courses, I have to script it precisely.  I have gotten confused while teaching some fairly simple material and have asked to be excused from the class.  I stepped into the hall, looked over my notes, re-grouped, came back in and finished the material.  I can do math, but it’s very hard to perform in front of an audience.

Where did this come from?

I know from where my math anxiety comes.  It is not genetic.  It is learned.  Everyone in my family can do math well.  I have proven that I can do math well.  I trace my anxiety to a few key events.  I was placed into a higher level math class for ‘gifted’ students, but I struggled with long division.  I was sent back.  This happened over a period of about 2 months near the beginning of fourth grade.

I remember my father trying to “help” me with my math and becoming frustrated with me for not getting it.  His help was well-intentioned, but not very creative or pedagogically sound:  repeat the same explanation, getting louder and louder, more frustrated each time.  Doing math homework was like being sent into one of Dante’s rings.  Crying was common.  Feeling stupid was even more so.  This was also in fourth grade.

Most of all, I have no recollection of a math teacher ever making more than a cursory connection between the math that I was doing and why I needed to do it.  Sure, they had word problems (the Devil’s own invention) that supposedly served to illustrate real applications of math, but these were first and foremost homework problems and my teachers seemed to just sort of think that it was obvious how this stuff mattered.  It wasn’t.  At least not to me.

But before this narrative devolves into another kvetching session, this one about all the terrible math teachers I’ve had and how public education is failing us in the math realm, I want to come back to my friend on Facebook.

He removed his post after reading my response.  He respects me.  He knows what I have done with my life and I do not correlate with his image of a student that says they have ‘math anxiety’.  I have put a face on math anxiety for him that stands in contrast to his stereotype: the student that is using math anxiety as an excuse to be lazy and to avoid working on the hard stuff.

His comment, however, suggested that math anxiety is not real.  I believe that this sentiment is not uncommon in STEM fields.  This is unfortunate at best, and runs counter to our goals and principals as scientists and educators.  There are many students out there that experience math anxiety that inhibits them from achieving their goals and dreams.  If we view this condition as something that can be confronted and overcome, we can develop teaching techniques, exercises, and other strategies that can help these students realize their ability.  From a purely personal perspective, if I were to create a list of things that seem to help, from the perspective of the teacher, it would be this:

  • Find ways to directly connect the math your students must do to something they care about.  Make it relevant, but not in a passive way.  Relevance should come first, not the ‘beauty’ of the math (sorry Math colleagues).
  • Find multiple ways to explain how to solve the same math problem.  Multiple learning styles need multiple modes of explanation.
  • Provide resources that allow students to slowly follow how to complete a specific type of math problem:  short, on-line videos that students can review; on-line resources that they can review.
  • Don’t rely on the textbook.  They are really only effective for students with a narrow range of learning styles.
  • Realize that most students are very rusty, even those who just recently finished a math class.  This is because most students don’t need to use math regularly, so they are out of practice.  In my field, we have developed on-line resources for teachers called “The Math You Need”, brief overviews of key math concepts that help support a specific topic in geoscience. 
  • Be willing to listen patiently to a student that is experiencing anxiety and try to refrain from telling the student what to do
  • Consider math anxiety a real, and treat-able condition.  Seek out resources that can help students that have it.

From my perspective as a student, I would add that, to succeed to in math, you have to be willing to work hard.  “Getting” math may be partially a matter of smarts, but it is much more a function of hard work and desire.

My first semester at UST I had a student with acute math anxiety, non-diagnosed.  I suggested she go to academic counseling and get it checked out.  I told her my experience with beta blockers.  At graduation, as we ‘suited up’ for the procession, this student came up to me and hugged me.  She thanked me for the recommendation and said that beta blockers made her graduation possible.  You see, she not only had math anxiety, but acute test anxiety.  She realized her dream because she realized math anxiety was real and treatable.

I would like to thank Melissa Loe, UST Mathematics Department, for giving this article a good read-through and helpful comments.  However, all of the views expressed in it are my own.

Editor's note: Students who have math anxiety can find support and assistance in a number of places at UST:

The Counseling and Psychological Services office provides skilled counseling for students with any kind of anxiety difficulty.

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