6 Useful Tips To Get Rid of Math Phobia
As an educator I have interacted with numerous parents, students and even fellow teachers who have held or continue to hold a morbid fear of mathematics. The fear can be so traumatic that, believe it or not, some students even contemplate choosing a career different to their passion or dream just to avoid taking Math as a subject in school or college!
We need to start normalising Math and understanding its unparalleled importance in our lives. Math is, after all, the language of the universe. How naïve of us to assume that by ‘dropping a class or two’ we can end our tryst with mathematics!
As someone who has over 25 years experience teaching math to students of all ages and then mentoring educators to adopt new methodologies while teaching, I feel the fear of the subject is a direct outcome of the rigidity that traditional academic instruction puts upon us.
When we begin to accept that different individuals prefer different learning styles and a large part of teaching involves identifying and implementing those styles to groups of learners to help them improve understanding of concepts, the phobia surrounding math quickly vanishes.
“My main concern with the condition of mathematics in school is that there's a lot of fear involved! Math is not, generally speaking, presented in a fun way. The concepts, as I see them, are fun, and that's the way I'd like to convey them myself.” – Danica McKellar
Before we propose solutions it is important to first identify the reasons for ‘Math Phobia’ in students. Often this phobia commences in the early years and grows as the years pass. It is mostly because Math is a progressive, conceptually interlinked topic. In other words, lucid understanding of a particular concept is necessary for understanding another.
Let’s see an example. Students are often introduced to numbers by the ages of 4 or 5 which is a prerequisite for understanding operations with numbers and also for topics like fractions. Students learn addition and subtraction following which they learn multiplication as “repeated addition” and division as “repeated subtraction”.
Similarly fractions act as a precursor to learning average, ratio and proportion, percentages and probability over the course of 3-4 years. Imagine having a conceptual lacuna for any one of these topics.
Would it be possible to thoroughly understand what follows? Can we expect young students to be proactive and work their way out of these “knowledge knots”? I don’t think so. It’s almost like building a skyscraper but suddenly replacing the pillars on a certain floor with toothpicks. No prizes for guessing the structural stability of this tower!
So what causes these lacunae and conceptual “dark spots'', which in turn create a domino effect in understanding and application of concepts? Through the years I’ve realised there are only three major reasons for inability to imbibe concepts:
- Lack of personalised attention, remedial action or concept reinforcement.
- Lack of interest in the method by which the instruction is provided.
- A communication gap during teaching the concept or while assessing it.
Each of the problems above involve meticulous and often personalised solutions in line with the depth of the problem faced by the student. However, as a parent or an educator there are some general tactics that can be implemented to prevent the problems from snowballing.
I have tried the following steps in my classes and realised that consistently following them have helped in the understanding of the concepts in children.
1. Speak in a language that the learner understands.
Sometimes, students have amazing mathematical ability but poor linguistic skills. Since the majority of our academic instruction is driven by spoken and written communication, kids struggle in math because they’re unable to understand the language. This leads to a severe dent in confidence and a wrong assumption that the student is “weak in math”. If the diagnosis is wrong, so will the remedy.
So, as an educator or parent it is imperative that every concept is explained patiently, colloquially and in a language comfortable for the students. To begin with use visual examples that children relate to like chocolates, candy or animals. Establish a comfort level in the communication. In one of my lessons for a special needs classroom I even created rhymes to aid the learning of a tricky concept.
Once the conceptual knowledge has been established then introduce more complex terms, definitions or formulas. Always communicate in a language comfortable to the learner. Math is the same whether taught in English, Hindi, Swahili or Latin.
2. Check for understanding through peer interaction:
It’s well established that if you can teach a concept in a succinct manner that even a young child can understand then you’ve truly understood it yourself. Nothing reinforces the understanding of any concept better than having to teach it to someone else.
So, in order to check if students have understood a topic well, form pairs and get them to explain certain elements to one another. This has multiple benefits like creating a buddy system for academic support, self-assessment of knowledge and development of skills that go beyond just academics.
3. Pictures speak louder than words!
Speak for hours about a concept and hardly any students will retain all the important information but create a visual experience around the topic and they will remember all of it. It’s a simple trick that even champions of memory contests use to recollect swathes of information.
Ask students to explain difficult concepts in their own words and even encourage them to create vivid examples. For example, if you’re teaching them fractions, convert the classroom into a jungle and assign ‘animal fractions’ to each student. Then explain fractions on the basis of what portion of the forest is home to different animals.
It’ll help them realise how to understand what fractions mean and how to compare fractions. Encourage them to enact being elephants or lions or bunnies. They will remember the lesson forever.
The roleplay and visual experience not only help in reinforcement but also in recall and application of concepts. It will also provide a deep insight into their understanding of the problem statement.
You can find some amazing activity based story books to help learn concepts of Math here.
4. Provide a variety of instruction to suit different learning styles.
Some kids learn better through reading, others through writing, others through auditory media and yet others through visual or kinesthetic examples. It may be impossible to customise lessons for each learner but provide a mix of activities to cover as many learning styles as you can. The more interactive the learning process the greater will be the understanding.
One thing I enjoy having my students do is create mind maps for topics and save them for revision toward the end of the academic year. It works as a fantastic way to visually recollect important aspects of a topic.
5. Identify tricky elements in language and provide examples.
The struggle students face with the language behind Math are real! One of the most dreaded elements, especially for young learners is when they encounter word problems. Often educators try and pick out “help words” or patterns to provide an easy fix to understanding how to tackle word problems. I Have found this process could backfire tremendously.
For example, when tackling Addition often ‘help words’ are defined as ‘sum’, ‘altogether’, ‘in all’, ‘more than’ and students are taught to keep an eye out for these terms to identify addition. These are deceptive as in many instances. I myself have been guilty of this practice and found that my students often simply looked for these terms instead of actually reading and understanding what was asked. They switch from an analytical and application driven process to a robotic and rote-memorized method of problem solving.
Let’s see a couple examples:
Amy made 6 cakes, which were 3 more than Sam. How many cakes did Sam make?
Keyword here is ‘more than’, so do we need to add? In fact, here we need to subtract which is contradictory to the ‘help word’ definition of what ‘more than’ stands for.
Zoe ran five times as far as Peter. Zoe ran 1000 metres. How far did Peter run?
The help word, ‘times’ , gives us the hint and we solve it as 1000 x 5 = 5000 metres. Unfortunately, this is incorrect and the correct answer is 1000 divided by 5= 250 metres.
The solution to this is simple. Provide ‘help words’ but also provide certain examples of how they can be wrongly used to trick students. The best solution of them all, I have found, is always visually depicting a problem by converting the text into a pictorial representation. This way students not only read every word but also start creating roadmaps within their minds about how to tackle similar problems when presented in the future. Application of knowledge at its very best!
6. Don’t just learn. PLAY!
This is my personal favourite as an educator and, given the raucous excitement, is a hit with learners too. In fact, many of them have fallen in love with Math just because of games or activities that I have implemented as part of coursework!
I’ve had students come back and visit me a decade after passing out only to remember that “amazing game on geometry” or “that wonderful activity on measurements” you played in the classroom. We never forget something if we have fun while doing it. This is the biggest validation for learning through play!
Provide a lot of fun games for learners to understand concepts. You could devise your own games or use the internet to find some useful activities. For younger learners I loved playing simple games like “I spy with my little eyes “ to revise topics like 2d and 3d shapes, properties of circles, triangles etc.
Outdoor activities help too. One of my favourites was to include treasure hunts as part of mastering a concept. Recently I was absolutely thrilled to do a workshop with some primary school kids and we tried a really cool Math Treasure Hunt that used some Magic Glass and Flashcards. So much learning and so much fun!
I also love using tabletop games to help learners understand and revise various concepts of Math. Games like Fraction Pictionary are quite easy to find as free resources online or print and play directly from the internet.
Games like Monopoly or Life help children understand the concept of money, profit and loss etc. Recently I found out about Alpha Steel and loved how robots and trading can be taught to children while retaining the inherent learning of important math concepts. Traditional games like Mancala (played with small stones or beads or seeds and a wooden frame with holes) or or Go! are excellent for mental calculation.
I strongly believe that if these steps are followed with the learners, there will no longer be any Math phobia and you will have them fall in love with this subject!
This blog was provided by an ace educator from India and the opinions are her personal view. Since she has requested to remain anonymous due to her association with various other learning programs, we are attributing this to her and replicating a spoken interview. The suggestions and ideas above are highly inspired by the lifelong research and publications of Robert Marzano.