Math is something new to me. Or at least something I haven't done in over 10 years. As an Arts & Sciences major and with a Master's in a Social Science, quantitative problems were never part of the curriculum. Methodologies weren't tested through formulas. Teachers in social science only want to know if you understand the facts and the concepts.
Do you know Israel and Palestine went to war five times since 1948? Can you explain why? What peace plan do you think would work best?
There is no right answer here. There are of course, wrong answers. There are answers that are so far in left field it becomes obvious the student didn't have the right knowledge before taking the test, but these questions use a totally different train of thought than mathematics, science, or any other field with calculations.
Recently, I have found myself in a conundrum. I am seven classes into an 20-class MBA program at the University of South Florida and have been working with math and concepts I haven't seen since my freshman or sophomore years in college, way back in the 20th Century. Even then, I wasn't very good at math.
Although my mother insists I was good at math once upon a time, way back in elementary school, I can't remember ever liking math. I was never enthused to sit at the kitchen table or a desk and do repetitive problems. I could never get excited about math. I think this dislike of mathematics eventually led to an avoidance which spiraled into me falling behind in math in high school. Math courses - from algebra to pre-calculus - were always my worst grades. They were my only "D"s in high school. They were the only courses I was not in honors-level classes.
I had no idea business classes were so chock full of math. I minored in business as an undergrad and took courses such as Business Law, Marketing, Advertizing, Economics, and Organizational Management. I've read Forbes, Fortune, a few Wall Street Journals, and some stock reports. I watched CNBC and Bloomberg. I thought that's all there was to business, and never imagined there was a world of business math.
Last semester, I struggled through Accounting. First, there were the terms such as "debit" and "credit" and meanings I had never been exposed to; that took learning. While other students enjoyed the refresher of their previous business undergrad lessons, I studied hours every night to stay afloat. I achieved a "B" in the class, but only by the slimmest of margins, and only after being aided by an extra credit assignment.
This semester I am taking Finance. For those who don't know, Finance is a mathematical-based class where students compare stock value, find the value of money, and evaluate portfolios. At least that's what we have done so far.
Needless to say, there is not much writing.
After three weeks in class I was petrified. The word problems the teacher handed out were in the English lagnuage, and the words were familiar, but I had no idea how to find the solutions. There was math I had to do, I knew that. I also knew I couldn't skip the math and rely on my strengths in writing to get me through. There was no writing to do.
As the test approached, I decided to start studying a week out. The first day, I stared at the problems. I had no idea what to do. The teacher's notes had formulas and variables that might as well been in Sanskrit. After an hour, I put the notes and the study guide down and quit for the day. I still had six days.
The next day, the same result. I was frozen. I decided I would visit the professor in his office the next day and talk to him about my problem. That night, however, I googled "math phobia". Surely someone had been down the same path. Sure enough, among the first entries was a Wikipedia page that caught my interest:
Math anxiety is a phenomenon that is often considered when examining students’ problems in mathematics. Mark H. Ashcraft, Ph.D. defines math anxiety as “a feeling of tension, apprehension, or fear that interferes with math performance” (2002, p. 1)
Hmmm.... tell me more.
Ashcraft(2002) suggests that highly anxious math students will avoid situations in which they have to perform mathematical calculations. Unfortunately, math avoidance results in less competency, exposure and math practice, leaving students more anxious and mathematically unprepared to achieve. In college and university, anxious math students take fewer math courses and tend to feel negative towards math. In fact, Ashcraft found that the correlation between math anxiety and variables such as confidence and motivation are strongly negative.
Interesting. But what causes it?
Math is usually taught as a right and wrong subject and as if getting the right answer were paramount. In contrast to most subjects, mathematics problems almost always have a right answer. Additionally, the subject is often taught as if there were a right way to solve the problem and any other approaches would be wrong, even if students got the right answer. When learning, understanding the concepts should be paramount, but with a right/wrong approach to teaching math, students are encouraged not to try, not to experiment, not to find algorithms that work for them, and not to take risks.
Very interesting. Then I read a paragraph that really hit home.
Active learners ask critical questions, such as: Why do we do it this way, and not that way? Some teachers may find these questions annoying or difficult to answer, and indeed may have been trained to respond to such questions with hostility and contempt, designed to instill fear. Better teachers respond eagerly to these questions, and use them to help the students deepen their understand by examining alternative methods so the students can choose for themselves which method they prefer. This process can result in meaningful class discussions. Talking is the way in which students increase their understanding and command of math. Teachers can emphasize the importance of original thinking rather than rote manipulation of formulas. This can be done through class conversations. Teachers can give students insight as to why they learn certain content by asking students questions such as "What purpose is served by solving this problem?" and "why are we being asked to learn this?"
Holy cow. That is my elementary and junior high math experiences in a nutshell. As you can see on this little website, I am the creative sort. I ask questions. I analyze. That's been my thing since I was kid.
So often, however, math teachers in my early years dismissed my questions, said they didn't have time to explain, or taught strictly by the book. I am not blaming them, but that could be the reason my for negative attitude towards math. My questions were never answered so I never bothered asking again. I was never taught in a way that fit my learning style.
Now here I am, 15 years since my last math class with a need to learn. I've decided to take a step backwards before taking more steps forward. After I get through Finance - IF I get through - I am going to enroll in a lower level math course, either statistics, business calculus, or college algebra, to brush up or add to my skills. I think the pressure of having math homework will force me to do the problems and practice getting solutions. Perhaps the professor can also answer why.
It's humbling to know that I don't know what I should know in these classes and that the skills I do know aren't that good. Hopefully I get better at math in the next few months and my increased skills will lead to increased confidence. Of course, increased skills and increased confidence are good things to have when looking for a job. So is math.
In the meantime, I'll keep watching Donald Duck in Mathmagic Land for inspiration.