Overcoming Math Anxiety in Everyday Life

As a requirement for college I had to take calculus. Calculus sounded like some elusive concept of math I would never get. Before I took calculus, my thoughts were that only scientists and smart people can take calculus. This thought pattern set me up for failure. Unfortunately, at this time, I was suffering from low self-esteem even though I was on the dean’s list. However, I wanted to get the math over with like a doctor giving a shot. So, I signed up for what is called a “weekender class”. These classes are more intense than the traditional classes because you are at class for nine hours on the weekend. And, to keep the information fresh, you get a lot more homework. The class is every three weeks. Looking back, I realized this was poor strategy on my part.

My first day of calculus was on a Saturday morning. We had a small class of seven people. He was an older teacher. He told us that he taught for thirty years at another university. “Wow”, I thought “he worked thirty years at another university.” Now, my expectations were high. Thirty years of teaching experience should be sufficient for a person to explain all the nuances of this type of math in easy concepts. My expectations were set. As he began to teach, he spoke about functions and domains like it was a foreign language (in a sense, it is). Without opening the book, he gave us ‘his’ concept of the the chapters. I learned nothing. I felt inadequate to learn but I wanted to try to understand. After a while, I tuned out his ramblings of himself and, unfortunately I also lost some important concepts. Like a little militant, he controlled when we opened the books and when we could ask questions. Over the next few weeks, I failed two tests. Because I did not understand him, I did not understand how to do the pages homework assigned. I did try. The comments he wrote on my tests were enough to make you cry. By the third weekender, I realized some math concepts need to be swallowed in small bites through out the week and not in big gulps every three weeks. Apparently, five other students came to the same conclusion. I decided to take calculus the next semester. At this point, I loathed math. My experience caused me to make a negative subconscious connection between a nasty teacher and math.

Because it is a requirement that I take calculus, I began taking it with the traditional students. The parameters of taking calculus as a traditional course is two hours, three times a week, which equals less homework. At first, I was expecting a repeat militant teaching style. To my surprise, the teacher took her time with us. She was thorough. From time to time, I had to remind myself to breath during lecture. I kept my book open. I took a lot of notes. I asked questions. The few problems assigned in each chapter, I did repeatedly for practice. After the first test, I relaxed. She made sure we understood the concepts, and I passed with a B.

This is what I learned. To overcome math anxiety, breath. To understand math concepts, do the the problems over and over again. If you are breathing and practicing but are still feeling anxious or frustrated, ask yourself if it is the way you are learning (bites or gulps) or if it is the way it is being taught (pompous or humble). If it is the way you are learning, get a tutor. If it is the way you are being taught, get a tutor, bring a tape recorder and take a lot of notes. A last result would be finding another teacher, if you can.