Many people in our highly technological society experience a feeling of intimidation and fear when confronted with mathematics. Whether we classify this phenomenon as math avoidance, math phobia, or what is popularly known as math anxiety, it is a sobering reality that millions of people suffer from this condition. According to Dr. Sheila Tobias, math anxiety is a failure of nerve in the face of having to do a computation or an analysis of a problem involving numbers, geometry, or mathematical concepts. Math anxiety is a response, over time, to stress in the math classroom where tests are frequently given under time pressure, in the home where there is competition with siblings, or at the workplace.
Teachers need to recognize some of the traits, symptoms, and indicators of math anxiety in their students. For example, students may experience an inability and anxiety toward solving verbal problems. Moreover, students may freeze during a quiz or test. The notion that incorrect answers are perceived as “bad” answers and correct answers are perceived as “good” answers must change. The emphasis must be placed on the process rather than the product. With encouragement from the teacher, a nurturing environment, and permission to proceed at one’s own pace, math anxious students can be helped to eventually eliminate math anxiety from their lives.
It was once thought that math anxiety had a greater effect on females than males. However, in 2001, researchers from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte studied the math scores of 20,000 students, ages 4 to 18, and found no discernible performance differential between males and females. Further, a study of 3 million SAT scores showed a virtual tie in gender performance on the mathematics portion (as cited in Barnett & Rivers, 2004). Yet, when these students advance to college, far more male students elect to take mathematics courses.
Today, women make up only 19 percent of the science, engineering, and technology workforce. Perhaps the reason for this disparity is the persistence of old stereotypes or maybe female students simply choose other avenues of study. Whatever the reasons for this disparity, mathematics teachers, acting as ambassadors, should try to encourage and embolden their female students to explore the subject on a more advanced level. Many of the future’s high-paying jobs will require proficiency in mathematics, and women should have equal opportunities to pursue those jobs. Additionally, and aside from any gender issue, outreach and encouragement from mathematics teachers make sense on a practical level; these female students represent an untapped national resource.
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