Don’t pass on your maths phobia

Becoming comfortable with simple mathematics early in one’s childhood is more strongly correlated with later academic success than reading skills

Last month, a study was released on maths phobia, in relation to the Programme for International Student Assessment — a series of tests given to 15-year-old students in 65 countries. Tunisia had the highest index of maths anxiety (0.65), followed by Argentina, Brazil, Thailand, and Jordan (0.51). Canada Portugal, Norway, Latvia and Australia have the least maths anxiety, with indices ranging from 0.01 to 0.03. The UAE had a score of 0.19. To assess maths phobia, students were asked whether they agreed with the statement: “I get very tense when I have to do maths homework.” In the UAE, 37 per cent of them agreed or strongly agreed with that.

What is maths anxiety (often referred to as maths phobia), what effect does it have on students, and why is it so widespread? Researchers, who have been studying this for decades, generally define it as “a feeling of tension, apprehension or fear that interferes with maths performance”. Sometimes it is described as a state of confusion and even terror when having to do some maths to solve a problem (even a simple one), akin to coming across a snake or a spider.

Here is an example I encountered several years ago. I was at a store, where I bought two identical pieces priced Dh199. The cashier, instead of typing the price once and multiplying by two, typed it twice, but the second time she inadvertently hit the decimal point, thus entering 1.99. (This was before bar codes became ubiquitous.) The total thus came out as 200.99; the cashier looked at me and said “201 dirhams, sir.” I smiled and said “surely two times 199 can’t make 201 …” She didn’t understand my logic and simply looked at the register’s screen and said “it’s 200.99, so it’s 201”. I had a hard time explaining to her that 199 is almost 200, so twice that must be roughly 400. I will not forget the scared look on her face as I was trying to explain how she herself should see that she had made a mistake.

Millions of people are afflicted by this condition. Early in their lives, they become convinced that “they are not good at maths”, “they couldn’t do maths to save their lives”, “they are more literary and less mathematical”, or other such beliefs. Researchers have linked that to two causes: At home, one or both of the parents keeps repeating that he/she “was never a maths person”, thus enforcing the false belief that the world can be divided into “maths people” and “non-maths people”. At school, the teaching methods that are used for the early maths topics do not suit some children, and they soon fall behind, fail to grasp the concepts and the techniques and a vicious cycle sets in where the teachers and the pupils convince each other that they are hopeless cases.

This is a serious problem because it deprives many students of an important component of their learning and of a vital set of skills in many areas of life — from banking operations (many people cannot calculate percentages, let alone compound interest) to foreign currency conversions and even supermarket shopping. For example, one often has to choose between products of different sizes and different prices and one needs to perform some simple calculations to determine which one is more economical.

I like to tell my readers around the world that when Al Khwarizmi set algebra on firm foundations with his book Kitab Al Jabr Wal-Muqabala in AD 830, he started by explaining why a number of problems that we encounter every day, from financial and commercial transactions to inheritance cases, require one to turn the problem into an equation and solve it using a series of simple steps (what we now call “an algorithm”, from Al Khwarizmi’s name).

Substantially higher salaries

Not being able to do simple Maths hinders one’s everyday life and one’s career options. A study conducted over many years recently revealed that, all fields considered, people who have good maths skills on an average have substantially higher salaries. Another study showed that becoming comfortable with simple maths early in one’s childhood is more strongly correlated with later academic success than reading skills.

Educators are thus now encouraging parents to “play maths games” with their children (for example, “how many lego pieces are we going to need to build a fence around this little house?”), just as they set some reading time aside. Most importantly, parents and other adults must refrain from making statements like “maths is beyond me” or even “maths is hard” in front of children.

At school, teachers must make maths relevant to children’s lives. They must also make the mathematics class a positive learning experience for pupils, not a dreadful time. Most of all, getting the maths skills quickly or not must never affect the children’s self-esteem.

By Nidhal Guessoum, published in Gulf News, May 14th 2014.

Nidhal Guessoum is a professor and associate dean at the American University of Sharjah. You can follow him on Twitter at: