Workshop seeks to ease math anxiety

Math tutor Marilyn Washington, left, helps students in the math lab in the lower level of D tower. (Photo by DeJaun Baskin)

By Harold B. Crawford
The Scene staff

For some students, math isn’t always as easy as 1-2-3.

A new workshop being offered at Forest Park this month will help students reduce their anxiety with numbers and equations.

“If you find yourself being worried about a math test and need help sharpening study skills at any level, then this workshop is for you,” said Mike Lueke, coordinator of the Overcoming Math Anxiety Workshop. “It’s a shift in perspective so students can see things maybe they didn’t see before.”

For accounting major Harriet Meeks, 50, math anxiety causes physical distress.

“My throat starts to clog up, I can’t breathe, my palms start sweating and my whole body actually starts sweating,” she said. “As soon as I get the test, once I look at test, it’s like, ‘Oh wow!’”

Meeks can handle homework, but when it comes to taking a test, “I’m hoping and praying that I’ll pass but I don’t know. I try to relax — close my eyes and relax. It helps.”

Eleven sessions of the Overcoming Math Anxiety Workshop will be offered Feb. 22-26 in B-334. They’re free and open to all students.

Participants will be given a 29-page booklet full of strategies and techniques to help them overcome their anxiety, including tips on time management, homework visualization, test preparation and how to avoid panicking and choking.

Lueke says math anxiety can develop over a long period, with “teachers telling you you suck” and “parents telling you they were bad at math, and you probably aren’t any good at it, either.”

Lueke has seen students overcome obstacles in math after discovering hidden abilities. But he warns that the workshop won’t necessarily turn a poor student into an A student.

“Hopefully, the workshop can give you something to stop you from repeating all the negative talk,” he said.

Psychology major Hayley Krampfert, 18, says she deals with anxiety in other areas of her life, which can affect mathematical problem solving. Symptoms include forgetfulness, dry mouth and “the shakes.”

These take hold “when I start learning something new and when I’m getting ready for a test or if there is math homework in class,” she said. “I get poor test scores because of it, and it makes me learn slower than the rest.”

Krampfert finds relief spending time with friends, playing with pets and listening to music.

One of the workshop facilitators is Debbie Char, who teaches elementary and college-level algebra at Forest Park and also instructs at the St. Louis Community College Adult Learning Academy.

She says students’ fear of math often keeps them from pursuing careers they might love.

“It makes them quit classes,” she said. “It makes them quit school, because this fear is so strong for them. That’s the No. 1 thing that happens that makes people not finish school.”

Char blames some students’ problems on how math is taught.

“If you don’t memorize it the right way, then forget it,” she said. “They’re taught that they have to memorize formulas all the time and memorize step-by-step-by-step, and it’s not how it has to be.

“But it’s how we think it has to be, and a lot of people are taught along the way that the only way to be smart in math is to be fast, and if you’re not one of those fast thinkers, you must be stupid.”

Information technology major Marlon Smith, 20, is another student who suffers from math anxiety.

“On test day, I forget the answers, forget how to work the problems and start panicking in the classroom,” he said.

In some cases, the anxiety has caused Smith to blow off assignments.

“When I felt like something was challenging, I wouldn’t do it,” he said. “I’d push it to the side and make excuses for why I did not complete the assignment. I don’t do that anymore because I figured out how I learn. The way I learn is through visualization and writing an equation and rewriting the same equation till I get it.”