5 Tips to Overcome Your ‘Mathaphobia’

15 Aug

You could call mathematics the “A-Rod” of high school and college classes.

Most students either love it or hate it, and just like with the Yankees embattled third baseman these days, chances are you fall into the latter camp.

Sure, for some students, writing is the skill they just can’t master. For others, a foreign language will always seem foreign to them. But if you surveyed your high school or college, chances are math would top the list of students’ “least favorite classes.”


“In the United States, we take it almost as a badge of honor to dislike math or to be ‘bad at math,’” says Adam Goldberg, assistant to the dean of the School of Education at Southern.

“While most people would be embarrassed to admit that they couldn’t read very well, those same people wouldn’t think twice about admitting they aren’t very good at math. In fact, math teachers often hear parents confess at parent conferences that they weren’t very good at math and this is why their son or daughter isn’t doing well. It is this attitude that keeps the negative cycle going.”

But why do so many people fear and loath math?

Goldberg believes much of the negativity begins in middle school or high school, when there is a shift in what students learn. In elementary school, students are taught how to add, subtract, multiply, divide, work with fractions, etc. But the emphasis starts to shift in grades 7 to 12 from practical applications to more abstract concepts.

As an example, he points to subtraction. Students learn how to “borrow” to solve subtraction problems at an early age. But they don’t usually learn why they are borrowing to solve the problem.

“Therefore, they don’t have the conceptual knowledge needed to really understand the material,” Goldberg says. “This is what causes the negative feelings toward math.”

The good news, however, is that there are things that people – especially students – can do to help overcome the fear of math. Here are a few:

• Try to change your attitude toward math. You don’t have to love math. But if you can learn just not to hate it, it will reduce your anxiety and that alone will help you do better.

• Practice every day. Well, maybe not every day. But spending 10 or 15 minutes doing some quick mental mathematical problems at least several days a week can help. The more you do it, the more comfortable you will be with math.

• Make it fun and relevant. Part of the problem for many students is that they find math to be boring and/or irrelevant. So, try to apply math functions to something you find interesting. For example, practice figuring out your batting average. Or, as we noted in a previous post about practical applications for the number pi (~3.14), you can calculate how much extra you have to run around a track if you are running 5 feet away from the inside. For more advanced math students, you can figure out how much interest you can earn on a CD at a particular rate if the interest is compounded continuously, weekly, etc.

• Consider getting some extra help or tutoring. There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging that math is not your best subject, or that it is your worst subject. The question becomes: What are you going to do about it? Most math teachers would be willing to help you after school or during a free period during the day. Or, if you would rather put the time in away from school, you can ask a parent, sibling or friend. Or you could even ask a math tutor. College students with a strong math background, especially those interested in becoming teachers, are often willing to help middle, high school and other college students.

• Reduce math test anxiety. Tests of any sort tend to create anxiety, but math tests often spike that anxiety to higher levels. Goldberg suggests checking out the following website to help reduce testing anxiety: http://www.ets.org/s/praxis/pdf/reducing_test_anxiety.pdf

Here are a few other websites recommended by Goldberg that can help you overcome the fear of math:


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