Math sums all the fear

Last Updated 28 February 2019, 06:00 IST
Apprehension Teachers must help students on their discomfort areas to cut stress on Math.
Apprehension Teachers must help students on their discomfort areas to cut stress on Math.

Teaching and learning Math has evolved into a ‘watch, learn and practice’ regime that many schools and colleges pursue. A Math teacher demonstrates steps on how to crack a Math problem to students on day one, which they have to observe, learn and then repeat thereafter. However, the teacher then gives students almost similar problems as classwork with some major variations, which in reality amount to a new problem for homework. This confuses students and breeds the fear of Math in them. To compound matters, low Math scores have their attendant societal pressures along with classroom punishment that drives Math phobia.

Mathematics is an abstract subject, which does not have a shape and therefore students cannot perceive it. To solve a Math problem, students, therefore, need to visualise it sharply. Visualisation comes from everyday experience and to be able to relate it to Mathematics.

Teachers teach fundamentals without many illustrations and therefore, students are not able to visualise the problem when they have to solve it. Students need to visualise the concept that the teacher attempts to teach. In the absence of such an approach, the student gradually loses interest and starts to disassociate which culminates in hatred for Mathematics.

Moreover, to convert word problems into Math equations, one requires a good understanding of the language and Math fundamentals, which are still taught in an archaic manner at schools. Mathematics becomes like any other subject, where they memorise facts and figures. But, the subject indeed demands a strong understanding of fundamental principles.

Students also develop ‘numerophobia’ or ‘arithmophobia’, which is an exaggerated, constant and often irrational fear of numbers. Such fear poses a threat to the learner which could cause changes in the brain and manifest in behavioural changes.

The left side of the brain is known to be responsible for the performance of logical tasks needed in mathematics, while the right side of the brain is responsible for creativity and arts. Analogies are active in the right brain and they help us understand the concept in the very first exposure. When analogies are not given, then students are confined to use only half the brain. Since there is almost no brain switching from one side of the brain to the other, it produces an avoidance reaction to math.

Teachers traditionally teach students only one way to solve a Math problem and propagate that it is the only correct way and therefore students are not allowed to think logically to crack a problem. Even if students adapt their route to solve a problem and arrive at the correct answer, they are not encouraged to do so. This shapes students’ thinking not to adopt other approaches to solve problems.

Another dimension is dyscalculia -- a learning disorder in Mathematics, which afflicts nearly six per cent of the population. The symptom would be in an inability to visualise number sequences and even the passage of time, proves difficult.

A part of the brain called the ‘intra parietal suclus’ or IPS is known to be important for number processing. Studies suggest people afflicted with dyscalculia can learn to count, but cannot recognise immediately that nine is bigger than seven unless they count by hand.


To help students cope with maths phobia, the answer is math therapy, which comprises coaching and counselling. It requires credentials in both counselling and Mathematics education. This therapy addresses the causes of anxiety and promotes Math skills which students lack.

The fear of Mathematics is not virtual, but real and prevalent in thousands of
students across the globe.
Due to the difference among
students in their learning styles, family background, interest or motivation, there has always been some anxiety in learning.

Research studies suggest the need to adopt collaborative approaches to promote a positive attitude among students towards Mathematics. Teachers should play a vital role in reducing the fear of Mathematics among students.

They need to instil self-confidence among students and encourage them to adopt activity-based learning and more practical application of Mathematics.

(Published 20 February 2019, 19:11 IST)

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