EducationHigher EducationPedagogyPop QuizScience

Pop Quiz: The Horror of Math

The bulk of the classes I teach are general science courses that are not math heavy. Even though these courses do not rely on math like a Physics class would there is still a small math component to each course. I am really not sure how to do science without doing some math even at the most elementary level. So when I tell the students that they need to bring a calculator to class with them I see them begin to turn pale and clammy.

I reassure them that the math we do in class is not difficult and that I will show them what to do and everything will be okay. Some of them calm down but a good number of them are very concerned. I start getting hands shooting up in all directions. Students asking if they have to memorize formulas? No. Students wanting to know if they needed to take calculus before they took this course? No. Students asking why there was no prerequisite of math on the course description? There is it says high school math.  I also get the students who tell me they can do science but they cannot do math. To which I respond then you cannot do science.

It is alarming how math phobic people truly are. I tell them that they do math all the time and do not even think about it. In fact they will do more difficult calculations trying to figure out what grade they need on the next test to get the grade they want in the class then the math we actually do in the course!

Where does mathphobia come from? I am married to someone who is math phobic. The moment you show him something with a few formulas his brain shuts down. Although, he is getting better now that he understands that math is a tool and not the evil demon he thought it was. I know that when I read General Relativity by Robert Wald I have a really hard time getting past the first few pages and get discouraged then put it away. However, I think that is because I have never been properly introduced to differential geometry so it is confusing.  Perhaps, that is why people have such a hard time with topics that have math involved because they have never been properly introduced into the area of mathematics.

Why are people so afraid of math? How do you deal with math phobic students? Do you think mathematics should be taught differently?  Should general science courses be void of even the smallest amount of math?

The Pop Quiz is a question posed to you, the Scholars of Doubt. Look for it on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays in the afternoon (ET).

Feature Image: Pythagorean Proof by Jellyvista

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JoDee is an adjunct faculty instructor of astronomy and physics at various colleges around her hometown in the midwest. When she is not trying to get her cat, Pixel, off of her laptop she is observing variable stars and researching black holes.


  1. September 12, 2014 at 5:47 pm —

    Math needs to be taught differently. Math anxiety usually crops up in 5th grade when it becomes more abstract and less concrete. The direct instruction method of teaching is rubbish that teaches a lot of collateral messages about math.

    1. “Today we’re going to look at how to manipulate exponents.”
    2. Teacher shows manipulation on board.
    3. “Now you do the odds on page 56, 1-27, for the rest of class.”

    Since abstraction is the problem, keeping everything completely context free only makes the problem worse. Then students fall behind. They are pushed ahead anyway. They see stuff that is not at all appropriate for their level of math. The easiest way to rationalize this is to say “Math is not something I can understand,” “Math is stupid”, or maybe even, “I am stupid.” Math makes them feel dumb, and whenever they see it, they panic.

    Math should never be divorced from reality in the -first place-. I don’t mean story problems. “A train goes 45 miles per hour and leaves at 9:00” just trains kids to plug into formulas and expect every question to have 3 things you have to identify with one way to solve it. In my math classes, I asked, “I want to build a treehouse on top of a thirty foot trunk, and I’ve got two options: a steel pole that costs 30 bucks per foot, or I could ship in a redwood tree from California. Now, there are lots of short redwoods, but only a few really tall ones, so the tallest ones are extra expensive. How can we make a formula that will make taller redwoods cost a lot more than smaller ones?”

    Students shouldn’t be able to ask “How do you want me to solve this?” There isn’t an algorithm. We have to decide together! Learning hundreds of tricks, methods and algorithms only works for a very few kids. Math should instead be taught as a real life problem solving class, using science, architecture, cooking, sports…whatever, as long as it has a context. To that end, science classes should (must?) use math, and this may be the first time a student actually gets to see math in context. Maybe you’ll be able to reach them.

    • September 13, 2014 at 12:57 pm —

      I wholeheartedly agree with RogerGLednem, for the majority of people math should be 100% practical and full of problem solving. There should never be a question of how to finish an answer, “where do I round?”, “should that be a decimal or a fraction?” The answer comes from the purpose for the answer. If you are buying lumber for a project knowing the entire board length needed is only a middle step. You need to then figure out the length of boards you can buy and how the cuts fit into those boards. If are building something for real you also need to factor in how many times you will mess up.

      There is also a persistent myth that if you understand math and you are good at math you can do it fast, and you can do it in your head. I am good at math (which I did not realize until college physics when the tests were untimed), but I am slow and methodical. On top of that I cannot for the life of me subtract in my head. God forbid you give me multiple numbers my RAM is not large enough to hold it all, but give me a pencil and paper and I can solve almost any practical problem. Slow and methodical btw comes mostly from the fact that the math I do means something. Rushing through the calculation for the concentration of a solution is a sure fire way of having to make the solution multiple times before you get it right.

      I find beauty in math’s practicality, when you divorce it from reality you cut out its soul. I love the feeling every year when I see so many faces shined with understanding when I teach the concept that in physics a negative number means you were moving backward (or left). Or that when you graph the distance something travel verse the time it takes the slope of that line is velocity.

  2. September 13, 2014 at 12:13 pm —

    I work at a women’s college, so YES there is major math phobia! I was told when I was in grade school that girls are bad at math and ended up being one of the top 5 students in our class in the math classes, and yet I still believed I was bad at math. In addition to that, the teaching of math as Roger says above can be so abstract that it loses student attention rapidly. I have no idea what the best way to teach math would be, but telling girls they are bad at it should probably be avoided!

    Science does use math, so no it can’t be left out, and using it in science can provide that context some student might need to see how math works. In my classes I present the math by working the problem (in the appropriate context) on the board then have them practice in groups, often using real data. I basically pretend there is no issue with doing math, I’m assuming they are competent already (and there is a math requirement for several of these classes, though it’s not a stringent as I’d like), and it’s not different from the countless other tasks I have them doing. I’m not sure it’s the best approach, but it seems to work for me.

  3. September 15, 2014 at 10:40 am —

    I can add a few additional reasons for math phobia:

    1. Teachers, especially at the lower grades, who hate and fear math. In the US, at least, children have the same teacher for all subjects up until around 6th or 7th grade, and they aren’t generally selected for being able to teach math.

    2. Math classes that go on to new material without making sure that the students have absorbed, understood, and integrated the old material. I experienced this as a math major in real analysis and in multivariable calculus. I got A’s in both, but didn’t have a clue what was going on until I hit the same material in grad courses and there was enough background for me to make sense of it. (Hint: a lot of real analysis was invented to solve partial differential equations.) Teachers assume that if you got 75% on the test, you know and can use the material, when it usually just means you can spit it back, Eliza-fashion. Also that the kids who flunked it will somehow magically catch up — that’s how our local school district deals with it.

    3. Math education which reframes standard math concepts in incomprehensible forms. I’m a math Ph.D., and I had the devil of a time helping my kids, because I couldn’t make any sense of what they were saying. I remember asking a half-dozen math teachers at my son’s school about a term the math classes were using — “math sentence” — and they couldn’t explain it and mostly didn’t try. (I’m guessing they didn’t understand it, either.)

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