When I tell people that my background is in physics, I often get an emotionally negative reaction from them, namely because physics involves math. People often say they hate math, aren’t good at math, or are scared of math.
For working adults who are looking to return to the classroom, fear of math courses can be a barrier to moving forward with their education. However, they are often handling complex math problems every single day without realizing it.
Consider a single mom sitting down at the kitchen table and planning out her day. She has to decide when to drop her kids off at school in order to get to work on time for an important presentation. She must then pick up her daughter for a doctor’s appointment, get her kids after school, attend her son’s soccer practice, and she still wants to get home early enough to have dinner and allow her kids to do homework. She might not realize it, but she is applying proportional reasoning over a 24-hour time period. She is doing math, and she is good at it!
When this same mom signs up for a math class, she may say, “I’m very nervous. Math has never been my strong suit.” This fear may prevent very capable people from pursuing their education, and that makes me sad. At University of Phoenix, our goal is to remove math as a barrier to education, so we have asked how we can reduce our students’ fears about taking college-level math courses.
As an answer, we design our entry-level math courses to more closely resemble the practical math of everyday life. We find students are more confident about their math abilities, they have a more positive experience during courses and, ultimately, they learn more. Instead of presenting students with math concepts that feel foreign, we flip the course to introduce math concepts through real-life examples.
When students experience math in this way, they realize three things:
1) Math is useful
2) They already know more than they realized
3) They can do well in a math class
"If we can help students realize math is not scary or too hard, students can take this confidence with them into their math courses and, most importantly, they can take it home and inspire their children — the next generation of college students."
— Dr. Jacquelyn Kelly, Associate Dean of the College of General Studies, University of Phoenix
Last fall, University of Phoenix and zyBooks, a Wiley Brand, created a math course designed to introduce concepts and apply them in real-life scenarios. Students reported realizing the ways in which they were already using math concepts in daily tasks. Many said they wouldn’t have recognized they had, in fact, used quantitative reasoning skills before taking the course.
One student shared that he was better equipped to calculate the number of baseboards he needed for a home repair project and that doing so saved his family money on the project. Other students reported being better able to tackle the task of helping their children with Common Core math homework.
A student’s feelings about math can affect their entire family. If parents view math in a negative light, their children hear that message, and math phobia can perpetuate. If we can help students realize math is not scary or too hard, students can take this confidence with them into their math courses and, most importantly, they can take it home and inspire their children — the next generation of college students.
As educators, it is critical that we approach teaching math in a way that is relatable to students. Doing so builds their confidence so they can overcome math anxiety and be successful in their careers and their lives.
We want students to learn and succeed. Providing instruction that connects to what students already know can alleviate the fear and anxiety that make students think they cannot be successful in a math course. We want to remove that barrier and help students see that math isn’t scary.