How to Make Math Be More Friendly to Our Students

What’s on your mind when somebody mention about “Math”? I bet most of us will react differently. Some people loves Math through vein but some other will resistant on it . For some people who love math through their vein, to finish some calculus and algebra problems are treasures to be hunt. They will not quit before calculating the top of trigonometry mountain. I met someone who studied pre-calculus as a high school junior, she found the experience unexpectedly fulfilling. She didn’t consider herself a “math person,” but pre-calc came more easily to her than it did to most of her peers, and she spent a lot of time helping fellow students grasp the concepts. “It felt good to be able to understand something and then be able to walk someone else through it,” she said. “It was so gratifying, and made me want to stay on top of the subject.”  Satisfaction and engagement may not be the most common feelings among students studying calculus. As we know, most of our students at least 50% of them feel anxious about math. That emotional discomfort often begins in elementary school, lingering over students’ later encounters with algebra and geometry, and tainting the subject with apprehension—or outright loathing.

Not only in elementary school, even student in undergraduate level could  feel anxiety in the first year of their college time. As Professor Moch. Lutfi, assistant professor of Math education and psychology at Al Hikmah Teacher Institute found even Undergraduate student find difficulties facing math problem with senior high level of difficulty, “Math anxiety associated to cognitive abilities and effective abilities. Questionnaire which given to 30 students first and second year of college found the students with low competency of math has a low anxiety of math as well, but the result varied to high competence students. Most problematic matters of Math anxiety comes from internal anxiety which causing difficulties to cope material.

Is there a way to separate negative emotions from the subject, so that more students experience math with a sense of satisfaction and pleasure? Immordino-Yang, associate professor of education, psychology, and neuroscience at the University of Southern California believes so. “It’s not about making math ‘fun’,” she added; games and prizes tend to be quick fixes. Instead, it’s about encouraging the sense of accomplishment that comes from deep understanding of difficult concepts. “It’s about making it satisfying, interesting, and fulfilling.”

Adam Leaman, who teaches variations of algebra, trigonometry and calculus to high schoolers in Summit, N.J., said that a sense of awe about mathematics drew him to the subject beginning with algebra 2. “There’s something satisfying about knowing there’s an answer and knowing I have the ability to get it,” he said. Today, he sees the same pattern with his students: they are most engaged when they’re figuring out hard problems.

There are several ways teachers can replace student fretfulness over math with a sense of appreciation.

Be clear about why understanding math concepts matters. Students who believe that they must simply endure algebra and calculus until they’re through with school—and that the actual learning is pointless because they’ll never use it again—should be reminded why understanding mathematical concepts is valuable. Most importantly, being able to comprehend a “symbolic, representative system,” Immordino-Yang says, teaches the brain how to think theoretically and logically. “Learning how to think abstractly is a useful ability in all aspects of life,” Immordino-Yang said. In fact, people who have studied complex math in high school tend to have better life outcomes, she said. Teachers who share this information may persuade reluctant math-learners to stay engaged.

Assign projects that help students see math’s usefulness Students are more apt to participate if they see a practical application to their studies. “This goes beyond learning how to balance a checkbook,” Immordino-Yang adds. By studying how fast and far vegetable oil spreads on tissue paper, for example, students can learn not only about the math concept of direct variation, but also about how oil spills are measured. Sharing stories from the news where math understanding is featured in the narrative—in a story about price fixing, say, or one on climbing interest rates—also can help students see its usefulness in the real world.

Discuss mathematical role models, and share how their ideas have changed the world. Because math is the foundation of so many other fields—physics, engineering, finance, astronomy, among others—history teems with mathematical virtuoso whose creativity and curiosity shaped the modern world. In addition to the usual suspects of math icons, including Pythagoras, Rene Descartes, and Ptolemy, more contemporary role models might spark student appreciation for the subject. There are many: Alan Turing, who’s code-breaking during World War II helped defeat the Axis powers; Ada Lovelace, who created the Analytical Engine, which presaged modern programming.

Strive to minimize the sources of fear. Math anxiety stifles clear thinking. At those moments when students most need to marshal their intellectual resources—during a test, say, or when called up before class to work a problem—those who fear the subject are apt to panic and shut down. Sian Beilock, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, and author of Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting it Right When You Have To, describes the anxious over-reaction to high pressure situations as a “malfunction of the prefrontal cortex.” For nervous students who feel pressure to perform well on a test, that worry causes them to execute beneath their skill level.   “Anxiety is robbing you of working memory,” Immordino-Yang explained. “You’re wasting your thought powers,” she added. Math phobic students need help from teachers to lessen their fear.

Teachers who act as facilitators, or resident experts, rather than omniscient instructors, invite students to explore without fear of messing up in front of an authority. Freeing up fellow students to explain problems also allows for more personalized instruction. Moch. Lutfi explained understanding our students personally can help them to relieve their fear of math. Good advising from their lecturers, teachers, even their friends ease their problem gradually and boost the self-confident. Tamping down dread is to set up class in a roundtable and encourage student-led give-and-take can be a good alternative of teaching approach especially for students who get low level of understanding. Returning to older math processes and ideas when introducing new material also works to lessen anxiety about the new learning. No matter how hard the problems, when we come back to it we have students say, ‘I get it now’.”

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