I am afraid of math.
April 15, 2005 11:34 PM   Subscribe

I am afraid of math.

Since coming back to college, I am taking introductory algebra. Although I consider myself a good writer, I have never been good at mathematics. In fact, reading the math textbook alone I begin to sweat and get very stressed out trying to understand the process involved in SIMPLE algebra. I have to move beyond this, and I know asking on the internet for this kind of advice is kind of dorky... but I really need some help. I am afraid of math.
posted by Dean Keaton to Education (20 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I understand things like if a=b then a+b=b+c but simple things like how to properly draw out long division is definately holding me back. I know splotches. It is like I partially know how to perform an equation. My blood pressure rises and I get very anxious when I try to do this on my own, and I start berating myself for being so weak. I don't know what to do. What can I do to get better? How can I get out of this crippling fear?
posted by Dean Keaton at 11:38 PM on April 15, 2005

Practice, build confidence, find a tutor / teacher who has dealt with math-o-phobes before.

Remember, there's nothing weird or special about math, at least not up to the basic calculus and statistics I've gone through.

It's just logical thinking expressed in a particular language, that's all. It might be a language that you don't know well, and that you find frustrating, but that's all it is... and if George Bush can learn Spanish, you can learn this language. Likewise, just because you don't know that language doesn't make you dumb any more than you're dumb because you don't speak Lithuanian (or Quechua, or some other language you don't speak).

Doing long division won't hold you back. That's why God gave us calculators.

On the other hand, if a=b, then a+b doesn't equal b+c, at least not unless c=b=a.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:11 AM on April 16, 2005

Try writing out definitions of each variable in full sentences before beginning any word problem. Never try to solve a problem before knowing something about the answer (is it a positive number?, an integer?, necessarily larger than some quantity?, etc.) Regarding algebra, you can do anything to one side of an equation provided you do the same to the other except divide by any quantity which might be zero. Therefore, be adventurous when trying to reduce an equation to a simpler form. Try thinking graphically; if you can express one quantity as a function of another, you can draw the relationship on graph paper or a computer.
posted by fatllama at 12:31 AM on April 16, 2005

Get a tutor. Get through the required courses, and then be done with it, forever.
posted by caddis at 12:49 AM on April 16, 2005

I spent a year working as a math tutor, primarily with adults who returned to school and absolutely hated the math requirements.

One of my best students was a brilliant man, but he hated algebra. I mean, I could just feel the frustration from him at first. However, he succeeded because he was determined to get past college algebra. He had a 4.0 average throughout two years of college, and a failing grade after his first test. He knew an A might be out of reach, but he'd pass that class if it meant walking through fire. Every day I was there to tutor, he would be there ready to go.

Your school might offer free tutoring as a part of your student fees. Ask any professor in the math department, working with someone can really do a lot to help you.

Study. When they say allow 3 hours per week for every hour in class, that averages out. Study as much as you can make yourself. If that means two hours a night, do it. Study and work problems, work every one the book has for the lesson. You won't enjoy it, but it will help you.

You are not weak. Let me restate that. YOU ARE NOT WEAK. I've seen grown men cry because they couldn't grasp college algebra. Math is a line of thinking that a lot of people simply do not click with, people who are remarkably intelligent in any other field you could think of.

I suggest that you find someone patient who you can work with. A classmate, a tutor, or even a professor. Like a foreign language, algebra can be difficult to learn and retain working solo.

If you want, go ahead and contact me. I'm not sure how available I'll be in the next few months, but I'd be glad to lend a hand on whatever I could, even if it's just finding a suitable tutor.

Remember, you aren't alone out there. You have to be determined to succeed, hard work will bring you there.
posted by Saydur at 1:11 AM on April 16, 2005 [1 favorite]

As another math tutor, the main thing that I see causing students to fail is they don't devote enough time to understanding the concepts. This varies from person to person. What may take me 20 minutes to get may take you 6 hours. As much as it sucks, just devote as much time as you need.

And, then, ya, get the fuck out of there.
posted by Monday at 1:55 AM on April 16, 2005

[Sure are nice ppl cruising through here]
Dean I went to Uni in my late 20's and had only done some very basic algebra at school that I'd totally forgotten. I hugely stressed about it and physics, which I'd never seen. (I ended up loving physics and tolerating mathematics)
Now we had tutorials in addition to lectures which made a fair bit of difference - small class, more individual attention. If they are available, go. If there's a math lab or support department, go see them too. They will assist. (and especially go if you can't afford/can't arrange a suitable tutor as mentioned above)
Otherwise, I was helped enormously by my fellow students. It's a bit like here... people like to help. Try the problems, show the other students, listen and learn. You'll be ok, promise.
posted by peacay at 2:03 AM on April 16, 2005

Yeah, meth will make your teeth gray and crumbly.

Oh, math! Yeah, I hate it, too. When I went back to school I missed testing out of algebra by a single point, which meant a semester of torture listening to a Russian grad student who would have rather been conducting his research on doughnut-shaped plasma. The solution to getting through it was to have a study-buddy. Made it much more pleasurable, for one thing, and for another it didn't make me feel so bad for have to spend hours working on the homework or preparing for exams.
posted by Mo Nickels at 6:20 AM on April 16, 2005

Frequently plug numbers in to replace variables and test your ideas with a calculator. Think about what you are doing! Play with it. Tutor may help, but I found switching to numbers then running things through calculations gave me what I needed.

Long division is not part of algebra. That's arithmetic, we do it with calculators these days.

Algebra is really rather easy once you calm down and approach it as puzzles. Only a few issues involve memorizing. If something doesn't make sense, plug in numbers and calculate it, both how you think it should work, and how they teach. You should learn to feel much better about it this way.
posted by Goofyy at 6:59 AM on April 16, 2005

I decided that I wanted to go to school a few years ago, and that the only thing standing in my way was math. I wound up having to go back and identify the point at which I became confused -- for me, this was literally long division and decimals/fractions -- and start over.

I got basic math books and worked my way up until I felt like I could understand the concepts, and then finally, finally took precal and physics 1 and 2. I'm in physics 2 now. It's not easy, but I really was the world's hugest mathophobe before I did this. You can do it, too. It's just a matter of devoting time and energy to it and asking for help when you need to.

Good luck to you.
posted by jennyjenny at 7:17 AM on April 16, 2005

I understand things like if a=b then a+b=b+c but simple things like how to properly draw out long division is definately holding me back.

You probably meant "if a=c" for that example... What I found useful in getting to like math was thinking about what it actually meant. If you're sort of memorizing a bunch of rules, and it's all sort of meaningless because it's so abstracted, then it doesn't seem to have anything to do with your actual intelligence or ability to undestand, and it just seems like some magic power people have. But the only special power they have is that they learned the language early or just got it faster - but they're thinking mathematically, not manipulating meaningless symbols according to seemingly arbitrary rules. A lot of people who don't like math are just not really "getting" what the numbers are doing & it all seems like some big secret other peoplee have access to.

I don't know what sort of things you find interesting, but I opened up to math after spending some time thinking about the sort of 'philosophy' of math, ie, what numbers are. I liked geometry when I was a kid, because I could see the shapes and I formulate my own arguments or 'proofs', and it sort of came naturally because I was dealing with something 'real', ie, shapes, lines, angles, etc.

When we went back to algebra after the geometry stuff, I got bored with it again, and it wasn't until years later that I realized that algebra is just as based on real things; it's just another step abstracted, but math all derives from the relationships between things in the world, magnitudes or multitudes. Even things like imaginary numbers can be traced back historically to be understood more contextually even if they don't describe concrete things (but these days I think imaginary numbers are understood to actually be sets anyway, so they're 'real', just not unitary).

Anyway, if you really start feeling sweaty and nervous when you look at numbers, I'd start really simply and just read & think about what different numbers are and how they relate to each other - maybe check out ask dr. math or other web sites.

Also, I found thinking about bases pretty interesting. We're so used to base 10 that we sometimes think that's just "how numbers work", but we only use base 10 because of our 10 fingers - yes, it all seems so complex & sophisticated, but it derives from our having counted things on our fingers. We count things off in groups of 10, but it's not actually easier to think in 10s; it's just that we're used to it. If we lived in springfield, we'd feel like we naturally thought in groups of 8...

I dunno if stuff like that is useful to you, but I find contextualization helps me see that what I'm trying to work on is not some mysterious task that I have to fake my way through, but is a system of thought that humans figured out because it ultimately helped clarify things. If you can sort of start at the beginning and see why it's useful, it becomes much less exotic.
posted by mdn at 7:22 AM on April 16, 2005

I have a degree in math, and so have done some informal tutoring of my friends. What helped them was different for each person. For example, one of my friends completely understood algebra after I explained it to her in terms of her makeup. It may be a matter of perspective for you. I disagree with some teachers who feel math has to be taught one specific way, for everyone. They teach in a way that will help you to later understand higher math, which is fine, except most people do not go on to higher math, and those who do will likely be able to understand the concepts even if taught using a different structure. Hopefully in a college Algebra course, they will teach for comprehension, and not under the assumption that you are going to move on to more math. This may be the case actually, my sister struggled with algebra all through high school but got straight A's in college, I figure due to a difference in how it was taught.

I have found there are a lot of helpful links online. I go to SOS Math when I can't remember how to do something. There is also AlgebraHelp.com.

My university had a math lab, which helped me enormously. That might be something to look into as well.
posted by veronitron at 9:12 AM on April 16, 2005

Everyone else's advice is great, but I'm surprised that no one has pointed out that, if all else fails, your college probably offers an easier math class than Introductory Algebra. You could always drop the algebra class and take this easier class first. Alternately, it is very likely that the algebra class is only one of several available classes which will complete your math requirements.

In general, though, I would encourage you to consider what you want to do with this math knowledge. If you're just going to fill the requirement and then banish math from your life forever, just get a tutor, or two tutors, and do everything you can to pass. If you're going to pursue graduate school (well, any program that requires the GRE/LSAT/etc.), or an even vaguely math-related career, then I would argue that your goal isn't to pass the class, but to get over your, uh, numerophobia. Two different goals, two different strategies.

And veronitron, I want to hear this explanation of algebra in terms of makeup. I don't suppose you've written it up on a website somewhere or anything?
posted by box at 10:16 AM on April 16, 2005

box: It may have been the visual that helped her. This was first year algebra, and she was having difficulty understanding the use of letters as variables. She just couldn't wrap her mind around "x" or "a". In trying to solve for x in an equation such as 3x +1 = 7, before she could understand the process, she had to understand what "x" could be.

This conversation with her happened in the cafeteria at lunchtime in high school. She had her purse available, and so I told her to take out some items. She pulled out her makeup. Say we used the above example. I put two lipsticks on a plate, and covered it with another plate. I told her that the plate sandwich was "x". The concept of an object (the plates) containing a number (the 'two' lipsticks) helped her to visualize the concept of a variable. I went further and added more makeup to the plates and showed her that "x" could be 5, or it could be something else.

Before this visual exercise, my friend had not been able to connect a letter variable to a number value. It may seem simple, but sometimes in math it's the simplest concepts that are the stumbling blocks, and not the overall process. Once my friend understood variables, she had no further trouble with first year algebra.
posted by veronitron at 12:18 PM on April 16, 2005 [1 favorite]

I was terribly frightened of algebra and dreaded studying, so I promised myself an escalating reward for every half hour at it. Eventually, just a glance at the red cover of the book made me feel kinda happy in advance. [The motivations I started with were 1) good red wine, and 2) an orgasm. After a while I was doing quadratic equations for fun. Am not making this up.]
posted by goofyfoot at 12:45 PM on April 16, 2005

Just remember, algebra usually consists of adding zero or multiplying by one.
posted by 445supermag at 4:37 PM on April 16, 2005

I have a PhD in neuroscience - and am currently a faculty member of a reasonably prestigious university - , yet I failed 10th grade math. It was all because noone ever bothered to explain to me that variables actually MEANT SHIT. So like, if everything was put in context, with an example, I could understand it. My problem was when everything was presented as an equation, because I was that little bitch sitting there saying "and HOW is this important?" So my advice would be to get a tutor that explains the reason for the math. I never really understood, until about 2 years ago (and I grad'd PhD in 2001) that integration meant area under the curve and differentiation meant slope (to give a ghetto explanation). Math is something that you just have to click with, somehow. But you really will.
posted by gaspode at 11:21 PM on April 16, 2005

I used to work in instructional design and I was a former math-phobe (there are a lot of us out there).

So it was with great fear and loathing that I agreed to join a project with Chicago Public Schools and Northwestern University that taught middle school and high school teachers how to design more multi-sensory lessons for math and science. It was wonderful. I am very comfortable with graphic representations and language, but strings of numbers make me hyperventilate. I had to relearn all of my math and science courses in order to write the lesson plan manuals for the teachers.

In the course of that, I stumbled across some books that were little gems and helped me to overcome my fear of math. Algebra Unplugged helps to translate math into more familiar concepts. Books for teachers that outline hands-on activities for learning math concepts (like this book here) are also incredibly helpful. Since we've moved, my materials have been packed away. I'll try to dig them out and email some of the names of the books to you directly. (Though I can't promise that this will happen...we have a lot of boxes packed away. Sigh.)
posted by jeanmari at 8:43 AM on April 17, 2005 [1 favorite]

If what's holding you back are the "simple things like how to properly draw out long division," what might be most useful is a solid review of elementary school math to revisit the few spots that didn't click properly then and are still giving you trouble. It's not time-consuming, and there's certainly no shame in it. As a former pre-Algebra/Geometry/Algebra teacher (three years in a Quaker high school with a variety of kids with different learning styles) I saw a lot of kids who had convinced themselves "I'm just bad at math" when really all they were missing were a few basic concepts. Some had simply been forced through their first exposure to algebra just a little too quickly for it to really sink in, got mired in the next lesson and weren't able to move forward, then understandably labelled the situation a "fear of math" and shut down.

It happens a lot. Being slightly shaky on just one or two basic concepts - recognizing multiples, say - can really interfere with a student's ability to keep up with an algebra class. But that hardly makes the person inherently "bad at math." A thorough review of the basics - say from a good SAT prep book - can catch things like that, and a good one-on-one or small-group tutor (I'd suggest shopping around for one whose style is calm and understanding) can really do wonders for getting your natural curiosity re-interested in the fun of doing math problems.

Sometimes realizing where the fear comes from can help you laugh at it and move beyond, so it might be useful to spend a little time thinking about your past math experiences. Can you pinpoint when you started having problems? Was there a particularly obnoxious, dislikable or unhelpful teacher who started you along the path to being "afraid" of math? If you can't pinpoint the origin, that's fine; just remember to keep an eye on your breathing and muscle tension as you work on math. Simple deep breaths and frequent stretching can do wonders to relieve even the strongest math anxiety.

Finally, know that you can do this. You really can. There are almost certainly a few very specific and eminently fixable reasons for your stress.
posted by mediareport at 10:40 AM on April 17, 2005

Someone mentioned the importance of understanding concepts, the building blocks of math. I can't second that strongly enough. This is one of the reasons why you should still trouble to learn that long division and not simply rely on a calculator. It teaches you about manipulating numbers. It teaches you about the real meaning of the decimal point. It gives you a practical example of why doing the same thing to both sides of an arithmetic expression doesn't alter the validity of that expression (But if I multiply the dividend by 100 my answer will be 100 times too big...oh... unless I also multiply the divisor by 100! Right...!)

Relying on a calculator teaches you precisely nothing about the underlying concepts of arithmetic: long division does. Long multiplication does. Manipulating fractions does. Doing arithmetic in your head does. Over-reliance on the calculator has produced a generation of electronically-dependent lazy-heads. This is not old-fart whining; it's an observable fact. I can't count the number of times I've seen bar staff who simply can't tell me the price of my small round until they've rung it up on the till. I can't count the number of times I've seen younger people work something out on a calculator which is obviously wrong by orders of magnitude and then blithely carry on with a cheerful "the calculator cannot lie" expression. Seriously: persist with those manual techniques and it will help immeasurably when you are struggling to understand more advanced mathematical concepts. And yes, a tutor is a very good idea, if you can afford it.

Mathematics is a way of looking at and measuring the world. It's a very logical, very rational, very accurate way of doing that. The basics are not difficult, they really aren't. IPeople often think they're difficult because they're fooled by that feeling you describe: the tightening of the throat, the mental rebellion against something which has strange formal rules and notations and jargon and which seems to be alien to our everyday way of thinking. I know that feeling well. Don't let it fool you into believing it's happening because you're thick. It isn't. It's happening because you're dissatisfied with being unable to grasp something quickly. Take your time, get help, persist... you can, and will get it.
posted by Decani at 9:17 AM on April 19, 2005 [1 favorite]

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