Guest article written by: Shirley Vigil, Associate Professor, American Public University
There are typically two types of students—those who either say, “I’m bad at math,” or “I just don’t understand math,” and those who say, “I love math,” or “I do very well at math.” There appears to be no in-between in this case. However, my experience in teaching math leads me to believe that there are methods that can be used to help those who are “mathphobic” to at least understand and appreciate math, if not actually enjoy the process of learning it.
The key seems to be in making learning math relevant to day-to-day activities. A common ground must be found so that students can use their other skills first—those that use off-line thinking.1
In designing courses for these students, assignments must be used to convince the student that they are not solving math problems just for the sake of “doing math,” but rather are completing relevant situational exercises. In doing so, the student is more focused on the situation, and less on the pure math aspect.
How do I know this? I was one of those students who struggled with math until I had a teacher that did just that.
However, this approach can backfire because the enterprising student may solve the problem heuristically, guessing the right answer, rather than arriving at it mathematically. As a math teacher, I want students to use formulas and the rigors of the mathematics curriculum so they can solve more complex problems.
One method is to teach how words can be translated into mathematical operations. The word “is” becomes the symbol “equal” and the word “more” becomes the symbol “greater than.” Making the connection between language and math is critical to helping students understand and enjoy math.
Also, students must recognize that it takes practice in order to recognize which concept to use for a given situation. Too many students think that they can simply read the textbook and know how to work the problems using the learned concepts. I don’t know many people who can actually do that. Learning math involves building neural connections—even those who love and are good at math must practice and learn how to apply new mathematical concepts.
In my experience I find that even those who do not like math can become math scholars given proper teaching methods, adequate practice, and a boost in self- confidence. Their math gene may be hidden beneath years of being told that they simply do not have the talent required to excel at math.
1Devlin, Keith, 2000. The Math Gene: How Mathematical Thinking Evolved and Why Numbers Are Like Gossip. Weidenfeld & Nicolson: Basic Books.
About the Author
Shirley Vigil is Associate Professor at American Public University where she currently teaches College Trigonometry, College Algebra, Contemporary Math, and Statistics. She holds a BS and PhD in Industrial and Systems Engineering and a MS in Electrical Engineering from the University of Alabama (Huntsville and Birmingham, respectively). She is a licensed Professional Engineer in the State of Alabama.