Monday, September 12, 2011

Mathematics: Gateway to the Merry Land of Science... So deal with your math anxiety and quit being such a big, damn wuss about it, you effing coward!!!

Photo: From Colby Keller's Big Shoe Diaries blog.
Submitted as part of the Fearless photo project.

If you want to know what the takeaway is for this piece on math anxiety, you don't even have to read past this opening paragraph, I'll give it to you up front: "Fashionable innumeracy" -- the idea that it's perfectly acceptable to be a mathematical moron -- ends here. Right now. From this moment forward, it is no longer okay to say you're bad at math. It's totally fine if you're not a genius, just quit acting like a math-shy half-wit. If you're faced with a math problem on the job, or in any situation, you can say, "Math is a little tricky for me," or, "I'll need a little help with this," or, even better, "I've got to work on my math." But fleeing in terror and declaring, "I'm bad at math!" while expecting to be given a sympathetic pass for your cowardice ends now. I mean it! Continue to shamelessly avoid math and you will be stripped of your citizenship and deported. Maybe not today, but it's something I'm working on. Seriously. I've written letters.

If you'd like to stall a bit before finally facing your fears, do feel free to read on...

Somewhere in America, there's a hairy, leather-clad biker dude who spends his days dealing drugs and doing math. That's "math" not "meth" -- although he might be doing that as well. Throughout his workday, he's probably doing arithmetic, fractions, even some simple algebra. He's probably even calculating odds in his head using basic statistics. And yet, for however long he was in school before he dropped out, he was probably one of those students who said, "Why I gotta study this [EXPLETIVE]? I ain't never gonna use this [EXPLETIVE]!" It's a classic dodge employed by people who claim they'd rather not "waste" time studying math. The truth, of course, is that math scares the [EXPLETIVE] out of them.

Math anxiety is real, but it isn't the same as test anxiety and it must also be distinguished from other more general anxiety disorders. Math anxiety is almost like a straight-up case of failure anxiety, but not quite... and, honestly, you probably don't have it. At least, not a serious case of it. Put a timed math test in front of some people and they'll get the shakes, the sweats, cry a little, then vomit. For most people, it simply isn't that bad, but the flood of feelings math anxiety induces is unique and unmistakable. It's that moment in class when the word problems, the geometric proofs and the almost unbearable pressure that comes with trying to solve for "x" make you feel as if you've just been dropped into a foreign country where you can't read or speak the language and you really, really need to find a bathroom. Or, as Sheila Tobias says in Overcoming Math Anxiety, "The first thing people remember about failing at math is that it felt like sudden death."

If you suffer from math anxiety, you're definitely not alone. A 1998 study suggested that more than 60 percent of adults have some math anxiety and a 2001 study at Cleveland State University found that 20 to 25 percent of the study's student participants had "debilitating" math anxiety -- anxiety at a level that prevented them from having even the hope of successfully completing a math course.

If you don't confront your anxiety, it feeds on itself and can literally make you dumber. It's a chemical thing: When a math test gets put in front of you and you start to experience a spike in your level of anxiety, a hormone called cortisol is released. Suddenly, your brain's frontal lobe is perceiving what it thinks is some kind of attack and your ability to focus on your exam becomes impaired. Your working memory, where the knowledge you need to complete the task immediately in front of you gets stored, starts filling up with all sorts of unnecessary junk and your mental agility suffers. Your poor performance on the exam increases your anxiety. Your anxiety causes you to avoid dealing with math. Not working on your math makes you worse at it and your ability to perform suffers even more. Your association of "math" with "discomfort" is reinforced, and you risk descending further into an ever-downward spiral of "fail."

Admittedly, math can be a tricky subject. In addition to inhabiting its own strange little world of symbols and syntax, mathematics is, as it's commonly taught, the ultimate form of decontextualized knowledge. It's as if there is an ongoing effort by people making up math curricula to prove the old "Math has nothing to do with real life" meme. But even when I take into account the problems with pedagogy, it's still a teeth-grinding moment for me when I hear of a parent telling their child, "It's okay to be bad at math. I was bad at it too at your age!"

Our tolerance of math anxiety is one of the reasons Americans are so much dumber at math than the rest of the industrialized world. According to the 2005 National Assessment of Educational Progress, nearly 40 percent of the 9,300 high school seniors tested lacked sufficient basic math skills. Be as patriotic and "WooHoo!! America #1!!!" as you like, but it doesn't change the fact that, as a nation, we are embarrassingly underachieving when it comes to math. It's especially frustrating when one considers how many Americans could be great at math if they would give themselves the chance.

There are some people who think they suffer from math anxiety, but they don't. If you ask them, "Are you good at math?" they will say, "No." But the follow-up question that no one ever seems to ask is, "Do you want to be good at math?" For a lot of people, the truthful answer is, "Not really." These folks are "math indifferent," not "math anxious." They just don't care about how well they handle math. They make a deliberate decision to spend time on other things and have no interest in making an effort to learn more math or to sharpen their skills.

There are other people who are very good at math, but they would never say so out loud. Maybe they lack the confidence to show off their skills in front of others. Maybe they think it's bad to seem too clever (like the scene in "Mean Girls" where Lindsay Lohan starts to deliberately flunk calculus tests because she's afraid of looking like a brainiac). Whatever. Bottom line: "self-conscious" doesn't equal "math anxious." I consider both the self-conscious and the math indifferent to be practitioners of "fashionable innumeracy" and there are few things more despicable.

On the flip-side, there are the "math confident" and the "math brilliant" who are in no way afflicted by math anxiety. Don't let them fool you: they are not proof that math is something only a few special people can do and others can't. Some people can display extraordinary levels of intelligence -- they grasp concepts and make connections between them far more quickly than others, but nearly all of us have the functioning gray matter needed to learn math. If there is something wrong with you in that regard, there are ways of finding out. Unless you've been professionally diagnosed with a disorder that is known to cause difficulties in learning mathematics, there is no reason why you shouldn't be able achieve math competence.

Six of Sandra L. Davis' amendments to her Math Anxiety Bill of Rights from
Overcoming Math Anxiety. Look up the rest. Read them all. Ignore the ones you don't like.

So, we've established that the indifferent and the lazy have non-anxiety-related issues going on, so you lot are dismissed... buh-bye, you sorry simps. You folks who are confident in math, or merely self-conscious about your abilities, don't really have to worry about any of this anxiety stuff, so that's you taken care of. To you readers who are brilliant at math and can deal with the most complicated mathematical concepts and proofs with ease and grace: I'm jealous, I hate you, go to hell.

That just leaves us... the math anxious, alone at last with our pathologies. Perhaps you've decided it's finally time to do something about your affliction. First question (and be honest here): Why do you want to deal with it now?

Adults have pretty much the same motivations as young students when it comes to math: We want to be viewed as achievers and we don't want to look stupid. But adults can be more haunted by their past math failures and might be more resistant to confronting them. The good news is that there are some definite advantages to studying math as an adult.

An adult brain is different from the brain of an adolescent and very different from that of a young child. According to Dr. David A. Sousa, the author of How the Brain Learns Mathematics, "When a person is performing basic arithmetic, the greatest brain activity is in the left parietal lobe and in the region of the motor cortex that controls the fingers." For more complicated kinds of math, other parts of the brain are recruited to lend a synapse or two. Adults processing math problems have the upper hand because they recruit additional parts of the brain to assist more readily than kids do. Beyond the brain differences, children must work on learning math under rigid, school board imposed time constraints. But you, you lucky grownup, get to indulge in "casual math" or "hobby math" and go at your own self-directed pace. You get to study math on your own terms and for your own reasons... such as the desire to escape the vacuous vortex of fashionable innumeracy. Or, perhaps, those old standby motivators, competition and cash, are what will get you working. Yes, you can make money doing math... especially the kind of black-belt math I generally avoid getting into here. The Clay Mathematics Institute is the place to look if you want to make that big math moolah.

Personally, my motivation to get better at math is the prospect of counting myself among the Loyal Order of WhiteBoard Scientists (LOWBS for short). The fact is, you don't need a PhD or even a high school diploma to do advanced science. Real science starts with
  • an observation
  • a bunch of data
  • a bunch of math
... and to do it, you only need
  • a bit of knowledge
  • something to write with
  • something to write on.
I'm still collecting the knowledge, but I have a whiteboard and pens in many colors. I've even got an eraser! Progress!

But enough about me. Let's talk about you.

So, you're sure your math anxiety is real, you haven't been diagnosed with a learning disability, there is nothing wrong with your brain, you are not math indifferent, and, most importantly, you are motivated to get to work improving your math skills. What now?

It depends.

Who are you? What's your math history? Where exactly is that motivation to get better coming from? What are your personal goals? Are you looking for some quick tips or long-term improvement? Do you even have a serious goal or is this pursuit more of a "Wouldn't it be nice?" kind of thing? Is price no object or do you have a budget in mind (like $0)?

Improving your math skills is just like a diet or an exercise program: There are lots of solutions out there and you might need to try a couple of different ones before you find one that gets you the results you're looking for. One good place to start is with a trip to see an advisor at your local community college. That's where you can start to set your goals and form some plans. Be ready to talk about your math history because ultimately, dealing with math anxiety is about dealing with your memories of past math failures and creating a new vision of yourself as someone who can learn math and show it off.

So enough "fashionable innumeracy." Enough letting math scare the [EXPLETIVE] out of you. Let it end now! Don't be like our imaginary, drug-dealing drop-out who dies a horrible, imaginary death in an imaginary, but morally righteous, drug lab fire... or perhaps gets an imaginary shiv through the heart in prison, I haven't decided. The point is we don't even like imaginary drug-dealing biker thugs so they have to die in some horrible, imaginary way. Not even math can save them.

  • Overcoming Math Anxiety by Sheila Tobias. © 1978. Published by W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
  • How the Brain Learns Mathematics by David A. Sousa. © 2008. Published by Corwin Press.
  • Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and its Consequences by John Allen Paulos. © 1988, published by Vantage Books.
  • Mathematics Miseducation: The Case Against a Tired Tradition by Derek Stolp. © 2005. Published by Scarecrow Education
  • Why Teach Mathematics? A focus on General Education by Hans Werner Heymann. © 2003. Published by Kluwer Academic Publishers.
  • Curriculum Administrator, August 2001. 
  • Education, Vol. 131, No. 1. "Mathematics Anxiety According to Middle School Students' Achievement Motivation and Social Comparisson" by Sahin Kesici, Ahmet Erdogan and Ahmet Kelesoglu.  
  • Journal of Instructional Phychology, Vol 35, No. 4. "The Effects of Anxiety and Self-Efficacy on Finance Students" by Steve Sizoo, Robert Jozkowskia, Naveen Manhotra, and Morris Sapero. 
  • College Student Journal, "The Relationship of Trait and Test Anxiety with Mathematics Anxiety" by Robert D. Zettle and Susan J. Raines.
  • College Student Journal, "Decreasing Math Anxiety in College Students" by Andrew B. Perry.
  • Perspectives on Adults Learning Mathematics, edited by Diana Coben, John O'Donoghue and Gail E. FitzSimons. © 2000. Published by Kulwer Academic Publishers. 

    Bonus: Because he seems to drive tons of traffic to my blog... ladies and gentlemen, Ricky Gervais!

    Bonus #2: Seriously, if you've been away from real math for a while, you should get your feet a little wet before you dive back in. Here's a no stress, simple little exercise to jump-start your math engine. 704K PDF, Adobe Acrobat Reader required.


    1. Very nice. The article was also quite good.

    2. I just started a master of public affairs program that is specifically designed for mid-career professionals. Unlike the youngsters in the other public policy programs, we don't have to take 12 credits of statistics, but we do have to take 4 credits of Statistics Lite, which involves puzzling through probability equations and so on, before being shown how to calculate everything on Excel. The ultimate goal is to be able to intelligently evaluate statistical info that comes our way in our professional lives.

      For many of the middle aged folks in the classroom who've been out working for years, the math is scary. Many have never taken any kind of statistics. There are square roots and Greek letters and the whole she-bang. But it seems that most have been really empowered by being forced to do it, especially in a graduate-level environment where the prof is willing to do a bit of handholding because of the "special" nature of our aged student cohort. I have always enjoyed math well enough and so didn't have too much problem with the class, but I have observed in my classmates how great it's felt to break through their math fear and actually find a new way in which math is practical.

      So I guess this is just a testimonial confirming that people can work through math anxiety, to affirming outcome.

    3. Without some basic EQ, all the statistics classes in the world won't save you from your own stupidity— people are more than just expendable numbers.