Guest Blog: Helping Girls Overcome Math Anxiety

By | September 1st, 2010 | 5 comments

by Jennifer Oullette

We all have gaps in our broad base of knowledge. I am woefully ignorant about math. Sure, I can balance my checkbook and manage my personal finances, even figure out basic percentages and deal with compound interest. But that’s just basic arithmetic. Show me an algebraic equation, and my eyes glaze over in record time.

Or at least that used to be the case. A couple of years ago, I decided enough was enough, and started to teach myself calculus. Not only did I discover that this seemingly useful branch of math was relevant to my daily life, I also found it wasn’t nearly as scary and difficult as I’d always assumed it would be.

I’ll never be a whiz at calculus – that comes with years of practice – but I learned the basics and have a new appreciation for all things math. I no longer cringe when I see an equation. And I also gleaned some useful lessons that could help parents steer their kids away from falling into the “I hate math” trap – particularly their daughters.

Take math outside the classroom and find examples in everyday life. I never took calculus or physics in school. I discovered physics when I became a science writer, and started talking to scientists firsthand. I visited labs, read about the rich history, and had the chance to see firsthand how physics is done in the real world, not in a standard classroom. It made the subject come alive for me in a way a textbook never could.

When I set about learning calculus, I adopted a similar approach, finding the math wherever I happened to be: learning to surf in Hawaii, househunting with my husband, or relishing the rides at Disneyland. Math is literally all around us, but the traditional curriculum doesn’t always capture what doing math is really like. Most of us just don’t resonate well to how the subject is usually taught. Our brains don’t work that way. But make it relevant to us in some tangible way, and we become far less resistant, even interested.

Foster a healthy attitude toward failure and focus on learning instead of grades. I was a perfectionist as a teenager, terrified of doing the wrong thing, or of getting the wrong answer. Because math didn’t come as easily to me as other subjects, I just assumed I lacked the ability to excel at it – despite getting top grades in the few math classes I did take. Deep down, I knew I didn’t fully grasp why I was plugging in numbers; I was just blindly following the rules. So I felt I didn’t deserve the good grades, and that colored my attitude towards math as an adult. That adolescent form of Imposter Syndrome chipped away relentlessly at my confidence in my own ability.

I am not alone in this. Many of the people I spoke to about their dislike of math said that it started when they failed at their first attempt at algebra, for example – and that failure shattered their confidence.  Or, like me, they knew they didn’t really understand it.

Perhaps if we all had healthier attitudes towards failure, fewer high school students would develop such a profound dislike of math. Failure is how we learn, after all, and it’s an unavoidable reality of adulthood. I faced down an irrational fear that had haunted me for years: a fear of failure, with all the kneejerk avoidance and dislike of numbers that comes from that. Any time we can confront our own self-doubt and fear of failure, it makes us stronger and more empowered. That’s not gender specific. It’s true of both boys and girls.

Don’t let your own negative experiences in math class color your child’s perception of it. Many parents had their own negative experiences in math class, and thus may feel insecure in their grasp of math — particularly once their child reaches algebra and calculus. I once heard a teenaged girl admit to being curious about physics. Her mother assured her daughter that no, she didn’t want to take a physics class! It’s not fun at all and anyway, “You don’t like math and wouldn’t be good at it.”

It’s true that the math and physics curriculum in high school isn’t as fun as encountering physics and math in the outside world. But when will this girl ever get to discover that math and science reveal amazing, hidden patterns in how the world works, if she’s actively discouraged from being interested by her own mother while still in high school?

Even if you hated math in school, encourage your child to explore whatever subject captures her interest. Perhaps you could even use that interest as an opportunity to rediscover the world of math and find a renewed appreciation yourself.

Jennifer Ouellette is the author of The Calculus Diaries: How Math Can Help You Lose Weight, Win in Vegas, and Survive a Zombie Apocalypse. She blogs at Cocktail Party Physics.

5 Responses to “Guest Blog: Helping Girls Overcome Math Anxiety”

  • Thanks for sharing these awesome resources and your story.I have the pleasure and challenge of helping learners identify and overcome their anxieties with math via programs and my role as an administrator/instructor in a career college. Talk about making math relevant. There’s more anxiety when adults realize what they have lost. Let’s embrace, engage, and empower young people with the resources, tools, and experiences that will help them live purposeful lives…we will definitely fill our gaps alongside them.

  • Michele Cuttler says:

    There are a lot of “social messages” that tell girls they can’t do math. This myth needs to be broken. I stumbled upon a great math book for my middle school daughter, called “Math Doesn’t Suck” by Danica McKellar. It’s a math tutorial book designed specifically to interest middle school girls (this is when their math scores take a nose dive) in math. The fonts and illustrations are very girly, and the examples are fun and interesting.

  • blakerivers says:

    This is probably my personal bias, but if you can put your hands on something and experience a curiosity about it that only mathematics can sate, then it becomes much more interesting to study math and physics. For example, they teach you early on how to calculate the volume of a rectangular or triangular prism, or a cylinder, or a cone…but what about something more curvy, like a 2 liter soda bottle? Such a volume can only be found using calculus. Well, if you have any curiosity whatsoever, then learning about solids of revolution in calculus should be intriguing at least.

    It gives you a sense of power that you never had before; all of a sudden you can find the volume of a whole slew of weird objects, like your desk lamp, or a car tire, or a baseball bat. I guess what I’m trying to say is that it’s probably easier to visualize the mathematics in real life than just to learn a bunch of abstract equations.

    Check these out: Mathlets and Click and Drag Cross Section

  • As a maths blogger and the parent of an 11 yr old girl who finds maths easy, but who still prefers “hands on” subjects like science and art, I am always looking for books and You Tube videos to keep her interested, whereas her 9 yr old brother tends to find maths in everything!

    I’m looking forward to the release of the Freakonomics movie and will add The Calculus Diaries to list of friendly real life maths media in our home!

  • Rana Emerson says:

    Awesome. I’m definitely sharing widely! And I saw Jennifer present at CUNY Grad Center a few years back on The Physics of the Buffyverse with members of a local dojo. Thanks!

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