Blog - Think Tank

Math Anxiety and the Community College Student

March 19, 2015
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Math anxiety affects about 50 percent of the U.S. population and more women than men.[1] 

Since earning my undergraduate degree in mathematics almost (2x – 10 = 25 · 2) years ago, I have been privy to the now all-too-familiar “I’m not good at math” declarations from literally hundreds of people - including professional colleagues, family members, friends, acquaintances, service providers, students, and even a few chatty airline seat mates. These individuals have come from all levels of educational attainment, and from all walks of life.  While the specifics of each story vary, the theme is similar. I have heard story after story of how capable, and even successful adults have made life-altering decisions regarding careers, college majors, and even whether or not to attend college based on their apprehensions of college/university mathematics courses. 

For many adults, the simple act of enrolling in college and attending courses is little short of traumatic.  In her study of over 120 community college students and instructors, Rebecca Cox observed that “For recent high school graduates as well as those outside the ‘traditional’ age range, entering college marked a high-risk and anxiety-provoking transition in their adult lives.”[2]

We who are blessed to serve in the community college as “remedial” mathematics instructors observe this more often than many.  Every semester, we stand in front of dozens of students who walk into our courses with fear, trepidation, and a heavy dose of self-doubt. These students have enrolled in our courses as the result of a score on a placement test that serves as a painful reminder of their lack of mathematical attainment.  While those of us in front of the podium may understand that insufficient mathematical preparation is the product of a tangled web of many factors, most students view low placement scores as “objective evidence of their academic inadequacy.”[3]

Cox’s research does offer some reassurance, however.  A number of the college instructors in her study attempted to understand the reasons for the students’ poor performance and/or apparent lack of motivation, and made strides to alleviate their fears.  As a result, students felt “invited to participate” in the class and developed the perspective that the coursework was “doable”. [4]

As community college educators, we are not just instructors of our academic content. We have also implicitly agreed to serve as facilitators. While maintaining the high standards we have established for our courses, we also have regular opportunities to acknowledge the courage it took for many to call themselves college students; and invite them to continue the sacrifices and hard work required to not only be successful in our particular courses, but to reach the personal and professional goals they have established for themselves.

 

[1] Boaler, J. (2012, July 4). Timed Tests and the Development of Math Anxiety. Retrieved from http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2012/07/03/36boaler.h31.html

[2] Cox, R. (2009). The Student Fear Factor. In The college fear factor how students and professors misunderstand one another (p. 21). Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

[3] Cox, R. (2009). The Student Fear Factor. In The college fear factor how students and professors misunderstand one another (p. 25). Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

[4] Cox, R. (2009). The Student Fear Factor. In The college fear factor how students and professors misunderstand one another (p. 163). Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press