Take a math course to overcome math fear?
October 1, 2012 1:50 PM   Subscribe

Math is sexy! But I am afraid of math. What class should I take to overcome my fear and get cozy with numbers?

At an early age I decided math and science were scary and thus avoided them for the rest of my life, focusing instead on "soft" subjects like history and literature. Nobody ever suggested I should do otherwise. (Yes, I am female.)

But as an adult, I've realized I think STEM subjects are interesting, and math is important. Now I have a desire to prove to myself, as a matter of personal development, that math is NOT scary (or confirm that it is, but through actual experience rather than prejudice). I have the opportunity to take an undergraduate-level math course--should I? And what should it be? Calculus, physics, or...?
posted by epanalepsis to Education (28 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
How far did you get in math? Why not just sit down with whatever course you were scared of in high school, get a textbook, use some Khan Academy videos, and do practice problems?

Or maybe get a GMAT Math workbook and start solving problems? The GMAT math is easy because they don't allow you to have a calculator.
posted by discopolo at 1:52 PM on October 1, 2012

Depends on what you find interesting. Algebra bored me to tears. I loved geometry. I also enjoyed Statistics and did really well at it.

Most degrees need stats, I took something like Quantitative Methods for Education or some rot when I was an undergrad.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:52 PM on October 1, 2012

If you need to brush up on the fundamentals, Khan Academy is great for that. I'd give it a looksee before diving straight into, say, Calculus.
posted by spinifex23 at 1:53 PM on October 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Math, like science, is cumulative, which is why it is difficult for many people. In other words, before you can understand calculus you need algebra, but there are no such pre-requisites if one wishes to study a certain class of literature, for example.

So, if you want to take an undergraduate class, the class you choose will depend on the most advance math class you passed. In fact, since it has been some years since your last math class, you may need to start back a year or two. I recommend taking the undergraduate class instead of teaching yourself. Teaching yourself is something you can do once you have a firm background, and if the topic is "scary", it is ill-suited for self-study.
posted by Tanizaki at 2:08 PM on October 1, 2012 [6 favorites]

I also disliked math, until I had to take introduction to college algebra (basically, remedial math for college students.)

Will never forget Elisa Bolotin who taught me that I am actually very good at math. Whether that is true or not didn't matter, I believed it. Statistics was really really fun and I was always sad that taking a statistics for social sciences majors just was not in the cards at my university. (My department explained that it was so they didn't lose students through attrition to the math department. What the heck?)

So I would suggest starting with one of the remedial type math classes to make sure you are confident in the just beyond basics of math. And then I would take statistics, because it is such a big help when you read the studies that are always getting mangled by pop science journalism.
posted by bilabial at 2:13 PM on October 1, 2012 [5 favorites]

it's a little bit of a set-up for disappointment, putting everything on one class like that. a class with a good teacher will have essentially nothing in common with one with a bad teacher, and it'll be difficult for you to tell the difference. if you're only going to take one class, maybe you could spend some time talking to students and teachers about different subjects and different teachers.
posted by facetious at 2:22 PM on October 1, 2012

For me it was all about having a good teacher. Take the class BEFORE whichever one turned out to be your breaking point, and research the teachers til you find one who can teach.
posted by small_ruminant at 2:25 PM on October 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

If you take an undergraduate course, I'd strongly suggest an intro to statistics class rather than calculus or linear algebra. Like someone mentioned above, most math courses build on previous knowledge, so if your algebra is a bit shaky then calculus could be rougher going. In contrast, undergraduate statistics courses tend to assume fewer background math skills (because they're often requirements for social science majors who may not have taken other math classes) but still are very quantitative / "math-y".

Plus, one of the major goals of intro to statistics classes is to raise people's general understanding of statistics and probability, so once you finish I bet you'll feel much more numerate and smart. Calculus, on the other hand, is pretty nifty if you like math (and oh, I like math!) but it's not terribly applied in the real world unless you're an engineer, so it probably won't raise your math-self-confidence in the same way.
posted by iminurmefi at 2:26 PM on October 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I'm a big proponent of talking to people. You've got the opportunity to take an undergrad class, you say - presumably, that means there's a specific department at a specific university, and you've had a look at the course catalog. Call up the department secretary, and say "hi, I'd like to talk to one of your professors to get some advice on which class I should take, and which classes are best for non-majors. Who's the best person to talk to for that, please?"
Talk to that prof, describe your background: What was the last math class you took? What did you think of it? What made it "hard"? Did you like arithmetic more or less than concepts? Did you love or hate word problems that applied math to a situation? What would you like to get out of this class - a particular skill, or a sense of accomplishment? Ask what professors are really good with non-majors, and what classes they're teaching this semester; consider waiting till next semester if that will get you a better teacher because that can make all the difference sometimes.
If you're talking with someone in the math department, and you're also considering other sciences as a possibility for the one class you'd like to take, tell them that, too. Physics departments often offer "physics for poets" type classes specifically geared towards explaining concepts in a less technical way, not for the math/chem/engineering types, but for the English majors who have to take a science class for a distribution requirement.
You've got experts at your disposal - talk to them!
posted by aimedwander at 2:27 PM on October 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Learning a little bit how to program can also be a good step to math. It's more concrete, since you'll be actually building something, and you get the satisfaction of seeing your work work. That's cool.

The book How to Design Programs teaches programming in the style of Algebra, so that once you return to an algebra book the intuition you developed about values and functions will transfer.

Khan Academy also has an short intro to programming course that's quite nice. Though the connection with algebra won't be as clear, it will be there still.
posted by gmarceau at 2:30 PM on October 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

My parents convinced me that I was a math dumbass (though I was awesome at all the sciences I ever took) and I developed a severe case of math anxiety. When I returned to college I decided to ignore their advice to avoid all science and math and dove right into pre-calc after not having taken any math at all for about 15 years. It turned out that I am an excellent math student but terrible at arithmetic. Fortunately, at the college level, calculators are de rigeur. This "terrible" math student came out of Calc I & II with As, and I think I spent about 20 minutes at the math lab over two semesters.

My formula for math success might be frowned upon by other posters, but it's what worked for me. I took all my math classes from professors who had English as their first language or were excellent English speakers. I can only parse one thing at a time while tackling a subject that's difficult for me, and trying to wade through math terms while struggling to understand a heavy accent is just too much for me to do at once.

All of my math professors were female by choice. (I am female, and I found the patronizing eye-rolling I experienced at the hands of many of my male math professors to be off-putting. I'm sure there are thousands of excellent male math teachers, but I never happened to meet any.) I found female STEM professors to be more patient in general, especially with non-traditional (read: older) students.

Last, but definitely not least, I stopped viewing my math textbooks as homework engines and actually read them. Using the syllabus, I studied the chapter we'd be covering in the next lecture in order to familiarize myself with new terms, and I did all of the step-by-step sample problems included in the text. I generally spent about 90 minutes on class prep, and it was wondrous. I was hardly ever lost in lecture.

While I was doing very well in my math classes, I didn't figure out how awesome math was until I took an algebra-based physics class. (My major locked me out of the calculus class.) During tests I was able to plug functions into my calculator to check my algebraically determined answers, and it was awesome. It was not awesome to spend 10 minutes doing algebra when I could just use the functions I'd already learned in calc, but I ended up with a 100 average in my physics class, so it all worked out in the end.

You might wish to take algebra first, but I dove right into pre-calc and found that all the murky algebra hiding in my brain popped right out once I was exposed to it again.
posted by xyzzy at 2:36 PM on October 1, 2012 [4 favorites]

I was pretty bad at algebra but good at geometry (in high school). I'd still need to take math courses to get up to college level, according to pre-entrance exams.

But I really enjoyed computer logic, the pre-req to programming classes. I was also designing spreadsheets and reports at work using Excel and Filemaker Pro. So seeing how it could be put into practice was exciting to me. Because I didn't care when a train from Albuquerque was meeting one from Chicago if one left an hour earlier and traveled at 60 mph, but I could figure out boolean operators and sales data charts. Maybe my teacher was just very good, but I finally grasped what an array was, or variables, etc. and I really liked writing programs in the next class.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 2:37 PM on October 1, 2012

I agree with previous posters that statistics has the most practical applications for most people. You could check out this class at course era to see if the topic sounds good to you?
posted by tinymegalo at 2:40 PM on October 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Absolutely agree that if you're shaky on the fundamentals (particularly algebra) you'll want to start there before getting too overwhelmed. I'm not a huge fan of video lectures, personally. For algebra, the texts I used and liked were Painless Algebra and also Jacobs' Elementary Algebra. Jacobs also wrote Mathematics: A Human Endeavor, focusing more generally on mathematical problem-solving, which I've also heard highly recommended. Both Jacobs' books are geared to adult learners, and generally pleasant to read.

If you don't have a specific goal in mind beyond facing your fear of mathematics, I would also look into books and courses on recreational mathematics. This thread has a number of good recommendations. I particularly second the recommedation of Martin Gardner's work!

Nthing other posters that the quality of the professor is important, and to ask around about it. If you're interested in ultimately learning physics, you should definitely take calculus at some point, as physics becomes much more logical with an understanding of it. (Newton invented calculus specifically to deal with physics!) Otherwise, all other things being equal, I would suggest either a course focused on interesting topics in mathematics, or a discrete math class (which is very much about logic, if that appeals to you).

People sometimes assume that because I sometimes tutor people in math, that it comes naturally to me, without fear. In fact, sometimes math terrifies me as well--facing a new subfield or a new type of problem, I have plenty of self-doubts: what if I'm not capable of understanding this concept? what if the approach I'm trying to take goes terribly wrong? It's okay to be afraid, especially at first; the key is to try things even in the face of that fear. When I tutor others, I try to provide some scaffolding and safety for exploring ideas and making mistakes; the books and courses you use should do the same.

I also like the approach suggested in this comment from 2003, and, of course, Einstein's quote: "It's not that I'm so smart, it's just that I stay with problems longer." Exploring mathematics again is a wonderful choice--I've yet to meet anyone totally incapable of doing it!--and I hope you find a course of study that meets your needs.
posted by beryllium at 2:57 PM on October 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Many math departments have a course called Math for Trees (or Math for Poets, or Cocktail Party Math), wherein a smörgåsbord of math's niftiest moments are made accessible to novices. (Expect to speculate on sloths' number systems, to examine actual pine cones, frieze groups, and topology, among other things.) The course is never actually listed as Math for Trees, but someone from the department should be able to steer you in the right direction.

Math is sexy!
You, my math-curious friend, have no idea.
*hops off metafilter, resumes helping mrs_goldfish submit her math tenure packet*
posted by feral_goldfish at 3:10 PM on October 1, 2012 [5 favorites]

I'm a classic right-brained person ... loved literature and history too, and disdained math, even though I went as far as college level calculus. After working in media for a good long while, where I never had to use any math, I decided to go to business school, and discovered I really enjoyed it. I think the suggestion to review the GMAT quantitative section is a good one -- better than taking any particular course, since you get a broad overview.

What actually turned my attitudes about math around was getting into sport. The two are very similar, in my experience. In both, you practice, keep at it, and develop a sort of muscle memory. And simple mastery is needed before complexity. I learned to love my problem sets as much as I learned to love my interval sets.

Right-brained stuff came to me easily, so I never had to work at it. It's much more satisfying when you have to persist with things, and thank god I learned this lesson with left-brained stuff than the other way around. Right-brained stuff is far less structured and harder to pick up with practice.

Even before I came to enjoy math, I did well in geometry, so consider geometry a tiny baby step. Most creative types I know seem to have done better with geometry (and trigonomtery) than algebra or calculus, but the latter two are far more of a foundation for higher-level math. Good luck!
posted by Borborygmus at 4:34 PM on October 1, 2012

Have to put in another plug for Khan Academy. Whether you're trying to understand differential equations or addition, Sal Khan will explain it to you so it makes sense.
posted by Asparagus at 4:56 PM on October 1, 2012

Response by poster: I should have mentioned that I have taken graduate-level statistics, the kind social science departments offer for master's students in sociology and psychology, etc. I liked it! Especially running different models. But I think statistics is not really math? I am good with spreadsheets and most softwares for whatever that's worth.

Ten years ago, in high school, I passed algebra, geometry, and trigonometry. But that was ten years ago.
posted by epanalepsis at 4:58 PM on October 1, 2012

Is this an opportunity to just audit any math class, or take it for credit and/or a grade? Because if it's the latter, they might make you take a Placement Exam to see what math class you'd fit into best.

There are some placement test simulators online where you can see where your math level truly is at, and then you can judge from there.
posted by spinifex23 at 5:27 PM on October 1, 2012

Response by poster: @spinifex23, I can either audit or take for credit, and probably have access to a placement exam as well--that is a good suggestion.
posted by epanalepsis at 5:40 PM on October 1, 2012

Best answer: Math is not just cumulative, it requires mastery. It's not like, say, history, where getting a B in one class won't keep you from getting an A in a more advanced class. In math you have to master concepts before you can move on to harder ones and they don't emphasize this at all in school, so a lot of people end up feeling stupid when they really just needed more time and/or help at earlier points.

I work at a college and we have a math placement exam for incoming students, see if you can find one of those.
posted by mareli at 5:59 PM on October 1, 2012

I'm going to plug discrete math, actually. It might conceivably live in the CS department depending on your university. You'll get some exposure to a variety of things, it's likely fairly different from what you've done in the past, which might help with the anxiety. And, uh, I like it and think it's fun. I think it's probably hard to get much out of calculus unless it's taught really well and if you have no pressing need for the material, that probably makes it hard to stay motivated.

While my hackles are raised by the suggestion that non-native English speakers are less desirable as teachers, staying away from the massive first year courses (calculus, physics, etc) may be a good move when looking for good teaching--while there are definitely some people who love teaching those classes and are good at it, they can also often be the classes someone gets stuck teaching when they would have much rather had something else. (If being taught by someone possibly younger than you isn't an issue for you (and, let's face it, some people have problems with this), you might want to find a class taught by a grad student, which I'm sure would make the people who write the undergrad admissions tour faint. But it's often a shortcut to someone wanting to do a good job teaching.)
posted by hoyland at 6:01 PM on October 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Take a calculus class for non-math majors.
posted by grog at 7:03 PM on October 1, 2012

Play around with processing.org examples. Lots of in your face interactive geometry right there.
posted by oceanjesse at 7:13 PM on October 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

N'thing Khan Academy, but with a twist. Have a single glass of good wine first, and don't hesitate to 'rewind'.
posted by dws at 7:37 PM on October 1, 2012

Seconding discrete math. Loved Linear algebra and graph theory, hated calculus (had to take Calc III pass/fail). Logic could be a good course as well if discrete has prereqs you don't have.
posted by ejaned8 at 6:49 AM on October 2, 2012

Choose on the basis of the teacher more than the subject. Sit in if you're allowed to and see who makes it stay sexy and who makes it into necrophilia.

Or, look for recommendations of teachers from others whose opinions you'd trust (or not outright dismiss.)
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:49 AM on October 2, 2012

"I have taken graduate-level statistics, the kind social science departments offer for master's students in sociology and psychology, etc. I liked it! Especially running different models. But I think statistics is not really math?"

Are you still in contact with the instructor for that class? Might be worth asking. ("I loved your class, but feel I'm missing some mathematical fundamentals--what would you recommend I take next?")

Also, wherever you're taking this class: there may be some kind of advising office with a math specialist who can help you match up your experience with their course options. (I did something like that summers in grad school. All I ever saw were incoming 18-year-olds, so I wouldn't have been prepared for your question, but it would also have been fun to figure out....)

In general: agreeing with any advice above to seek out all the expert help you can: math departments can have a pretty complicated array of undergraduate offerings, and you may want help working out which is the best fit.

Also, after you do find a class, communicate with the instructor early about any problems; if it turns out you're overwhelmed (or, alternatively, bored), you'll have more options (transferring to another class, signing up for extra help, whatever) in the first few days or weeks.

Have fun!
posted by bfields at 7:01 AM on October 2, 2012

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