I've seen a few posts that deal with anxiety about math or wondering if passing math is a realistic goal. I want to share a personal story that I hope will have the effect of inspiring those who are terrified of math.
Due to extreme family dysfunction, I did not attend school after the sixth grade. I did get my GED when I was 16, but I attribute my passing the GED to a great deal of luck (many questions I simply made blind guesses at). Every time I tried to "figure math out", I would freeze up and my mind would cease to work. I couldn't even multiply numbers without having to struggle for the answer, unless they were the easy ones like 5's.
I bought into the myth that some people were just good at math naturally, while others didn't have a knack for it. This is a stereotype that is very common in our culture. That math is something that requires talent or a gift. Forgive my language, but I cannot say this strongly enough....that is utter ********! Nobody comes out the womb with a gift for math. This is a skill that is learned through repetition and a lot of practice. It is interesting to note that the whole concept of "math anxiety" is unique to the United States. People in other countries do not readily accept that math is easier for men than it is for women. Having quality math teachers matters so much. If you have had experiences with teachers who either overtly or covertly insinuate that some students "just don't get it", you'll find yourself believing it. Do a google or Yahoo! search on math anxiety and do some reading, I personally found it very liberating to learn that math phobias are learned and promoted by our culture (U.S.) and that there is absolutely no scientific basis for it. This is not to say that math phobias do not exisit, I am saying that the underlying reason of why we have math anxiety is not due to an inate inability to learn it, it's a learned reaction.
Fast Forward to 2001. I knew that if I was ever going to have a good job, I would need to go to college and at the very least, learn a skill. I knew that in order to get any type of college degree, I would have to pass college algebra. I didn't even have any clue as to what type of problems were involved in college algebra, I just knew that I couldn't do them. I had to begin at the beginning. I bought several "math for dummies" type of books and took it very slowly. I also bought a huge book of math problems so that I could practice each skill. Many of the books that I bought (even though they were for dummies) were still a bit advanced for me. I felt so stupid. My husband is very intelligent and even though he would sit with me and help me out when I needed it, I was still very insecure about how little I knew. The books that helped me the most were:
The Princeton Review's "Math Smart...Getting a grip on basic math".
Learning Express's "Practical Math...Success in 20 Minutes a Day".
Cliffs Study Solver "Basic Math and Pre-Algebra".
I found these books at Barnes and Nobles and Books-a-Million. Prior to enrolling in the basic math class at my local community college, I read these books and practiced problems every day for a few weeks.
I ended up with a B in basic math. At least now I knew how to add, subtract, mutiply and divide...fractions too!
I decided that even though I was still convinced that I'd probably never be able to pass College Algebra, I'd go ahead and take Beginning Algebra. I was lucky to have a teacher who did a pretty good job of explaining things. After each class I would go home and re-copy my notes from class and using the problems that we worked in class as my guide, I did my homework. Imagine my surprise when I ended up with an A in Beginning Algebra.
Still not conviced that I'd be able to tackle College Algebra, but a bit more confident than when I first began, I enrolled in Intermediate Algebra. I was surprised to learn that most of Intermediate Algebra was merely a continuation of Beginning Algebra, we were just adding a few more wrinkles to the problems, taking them a bit more in depth. I struggled a bit with functions (domain and range) and I didn't particularly feel good about graphing equations either. I kept plodding along doing my homework EVERY day, even re-doing problems I had already worked. If I came to a problem that I didn't understand, the best way for me to handle that was to look in the answer guide. We had a Student Solutions Manual that solved the problems step by step. This was useful because I could visually identify where I was having trouble! I got an A in Intermediate Algebra.
By this time, my confidence had risen. I was far more confident than when I had started this journey back in Basic Math, but to be honest, I was still a bit afraid. Passing College Algebra had been a goal for so long now, that it seemed almost mythical in nature. I had one semester left and I knew it would be the hardest math class I ever took. Up until this point, I had been getting straight A's in math and all of my other classes, so now my goal was to not only PASS it, but I wanted an A in it too!
Greedy eh?
If I had known that College Algebra would be more functions (I got my lowest test grade on functions) and graphing even more equations (thrown in were parabola's, absolute value functions/graphs, etc) I would have been more scared than I was. But something amazing happened. When we got to those sections, they made more sense the second time around. I wasn't totally clear on everything, but for some reason I wasn't too stressed out about it. Somewhere along the way I gained something that I didn't expect: confidence. I knew in my heart that I would be able to figure it out because after all, I had some success under my belt and as a result I felt like I could handle more difficult problems. This isn't to say that I was entirely rid of my nervousness, but toward the end of that semester I was more excited about passing College Algebra than I was scared to fail.
I took my final December 13, 2005 and got an A. I honestly did not believe I could have done it, but I did. And not only that, I feel like I could even go on to a higher math course. I took statistics during this last semester as well (and got an A) so that goes to illustrate that even though I wasn't 100% consciously aware that my confidence had risen, it must have because I breezed right through stats.
I had a long hard jouney with math, and it doesn't end here. I am starting an ADN nursing program in January and there will be a lot math involved in conversion, dosage calculations, etc. But the difference is that now I have a track record of success and this will help me through.
If I had to narrow down the best advice for how to get through math, it is this:
Brush up on the basics before you tackle the hard stuff. You need a good solid foundation.
Utilize the resources that are available on the internet and in a lot of cases, your math text will have an online learning component. USE THESE.
Purplemath and math.com are great sites to visit when you need alternate explanations of how to work a problem. I used these sites plenty!
Math is something you MUST practice. Copy your notes the very same day you had them in class so that you reinforce what you learned.
Work problems EVERY day. Even if it's just 3 or 4. I can't tell you how many times I "forgot" how to work a problem that I knew only days before. It's frustrating, but with practice, you will see the results.
Choose your math teacher by getting advice from other students who had anxiety with math. I have a hunch that my College Algebra teacher use to have a math phobia because the way he teaches is really geared toward thorough explanations, as though he anticipates where we are most likely to be confused and then he spent time going over those points.
Think about math when you are driving or taking a shower. If you can picture a problem in your head and state aloud what steps you would take to solve it, you'd be amazed how effective that is.
Take breaks when you get frustrated, but always come back to it. It is our nature to avoid that which makes us uncomfortable, but this is the only way to conquor it.
I wish you the very best and please remember...if doing well in math is something that you want (and you're willing to work for it), victory will be yours!
Adri