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Math - The Monster

What is it about mathematics that scares so many students? Why do the simple tasks of addition, subtraction, division or multiplication appear horrifying monsters to many? Eminent Kashmiri educationist Prof A G Madhosh says that a lot of students have an ingrained fear of maths from early schooling. “When we ask students as to why they don’t like maths, they simply reply that they cannot do it. This is because of the initial fear which they have faced in the beginning of their studies,” said Madhosh. Iqra Firdous, a student of 9th class at New Era Public School, finds maths full of problems. “I don’t like maths because it is full of problems. I can’t remember all the formulas and methods to solve these problems and I always get less marks in mathematics,” said Iqra.

According to the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER Rural) 2014, a non-governmental survey conducted by Pratham, among a sample of Class III students in 13 rural districts in J&K, 3.8 percent could not even recognize numbers 1-9, 13.7 percent could recognize numbers up to 9 but not more, 41.6 percent recognized numbers up to 99 but could not do subtraction, and 30.8 percent could do subtraction but not division. Only 10.2 percent could solve division problems. Similarly, for Class VIII the percentage of students who could solve the division as well as subtraction problems rose only to 39.2. Even at this level (class VIII) 0.4 percent could not recognise numbers 1-9, and 2.1 percent failed to properly recognise numbers 10-99. A further 23.6 percent failed at subtraction. Struggling with maths, however, is not limited to J&K. It is a universal problem. Mark H Ashcraft, Professor of Psychology at the university of Nevada Las Vegas, defines ‘math anxiety’ as "a feeling of tension, apprehension, or fear that interferes with math performance". Ashcraft, who has done extensive research on math anxiety, suggests that highly anxious math students will avoid situations in which they have to perform mathematical calculations. Math avoidance, he says, results in less competency, exposure and maths 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.

Mathematics appears to be a highly misunderstood subject. Students find it difficult, despite the fact that it is the only subject that doesn’t require cramming. One only needs to understand the concept, or basics, and remember some formulae to solve a given problem. And if you get the right answers, mathematics fetches more marks than any other subject. No marks are deducted for grammar, spelling mistake or even handwriting. The correct solution means full marks. Educationist Madhosh says math anxiety in Kashmir has a lot to do with the attitude of a teacher than of students themselves. “It is all about the attitude of teachers.

If teachers fear a subject especially math, it transfers to the students as well,” said Madhosh. Teachers have an important role to play in student’s ability to learn things. If a teacher knows how to make a subject interesting, the students won’t fear the subject. Two years ago Save the Children, Kashmir, an NGO, undertook an exercise in which they trained some 22,000 teachers in basics. One of its components was attitudinal training. Prof Madhosh, who was involved in the exercise, found that the attitudinal training of teachers had a direct impact on the results of their students. “When I did the evaluation, I found that the attitudinal training of teachers had a direct impact on the performance of students.

Before training of teachers, students acquired very few marks but after the teachers were trained by Save the Children, same students got more than 50 percent marks,” said Madhosh. Aijaz Ahmad Dar, a maths teacher contends that Kashmir faces a problem in teaching methods. “Students are not made to understand basics; they are just made to solve the problem, even if it involves cramming. Thus making mathematics a difficult subject,” said Dar. Mubashir Wafai, MD Aloha J&K, goes a step further and blames the society itself. “There is nothing wrong with the minds of children here but the problem lies with the society. Society has actually made students think that mathematics is difficult," said Wafai. Aloha offers specialised programs for maths learning to students.

"At Aloha we strengthen the overall personality of a child and it helps them gain confidence in maths. Around 95 percent of pass outs from Aloha don't have maths phobia at all,” said Wafai. Girls are generally believed to fare badly at maths than boys. Prof Madhosh, however, says that studies comparing the maths ability of two genders don’t throw up too much of a difference.

Madhosh undertook a survey on a sample of students (boys and girls) from standard 2 to 12. “When I did the survey to see the level of maths fear among boys and girls, I found that 55 percent of girls had the fear of math while as in the case of boys it was 45 percent. It means that girls have more fear of maths but this is not a huge difference and it can be worked upon,” said Madhosh. Girls report more math anxiety in general.But are actually less anxious during maths classes and exams, according to new research forthcoming in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

Existing research suggests that females are more anxious when it comes to mathematics than their male peers, despite similar levels of achievement. According to researchers, girls have more math anxiety because of stereotyped beliefs regarding maths ability, rather than actual ability or anxiety differences, and it may be largely responsible for women not choosing to pursue careers in maths-intensive domains.

Researchers at the University of Chicago discovered that in classes with teachers that have math anxiety, maths achievement at the end of the school year was worse for girls than for boys. Girls with such teachers were also more likely to endorse the stereotype that boys were better in maths and girls are better in reading.

What's going on? The teachers in question were not worse at teaching maths, the scientists say, but they were somehow passing on the idea to the young girls in their classrooms that maths was scary. In Kashmir valley, most of the girl students opt for medical stream and fewer go for the nonmedical stream just because of mathematics. Sister Phyllis, Principal of Presentation Convent, a leading girls’school in the valley, says fewer girls from the school opt for mathematics after high school.

"Here we see more girls going for biology (subject) instead of maths. Most of the girls are reluctant to take maths as a subject after class 10th and thus we have less number of girls in non-medical section than we have in the medical section," Phyllis said. She, however, says that math anxiety was not limited to girls. "We have to change the attitude of parents and teachers to reduce the fear of maths among students. Parents should encourage children to go for maths right from the beginning and teachers should be maths experts.

We should have real maths scholars to teach so that students feel inspired and opt for mathematics in future,” she said. In today’s world dominated by computer programs, students need maths more than ever. Students enjoy experimenting.

To learn mathematics, students must be engaged in exploring, conjecturing, and thinking rather than rote learning of rules and procedures. “To get rid of maths phobia teachers should change themselves and teaching methods as well.

We have to make students understand that mathematics is not only about addition and subtraction but it is much more. We have to invoke an interest among students for mathematics and things will change on their own,” said Dar, the maths teacher.

Maths must be looked upon in a positive light in order to reduce maths phobia. Therefore, teachers must stop using traditional teaching methods which often do not match student's learning styles and skills needed in the society.


'Expose students to creative side of math’


Dr Fozia S  Qazi teaches mathematics at the Islamic University of Science and Technology, Awantipora. A Ph.D in mathematics from Syracuse University New York, 

Dr Fozia has taught for over 20 years in the US before returning to Kashmir in 2009. She has written and lectured widely on mathematics, gender and Kashmir.

She talks to Nishah Zargar on tackling math phobia.



Q. What exactly is Math Phobia?

Dr. Fozia S. Qazi: Fear of mathematics as a subject, that it is too hard or apprehension that one is not going to do well in this subject

Q. How do students see mathematics here, in Kashmir?

Dr. Fozia: Same as many other places - they mostly see it as a subject of formulas and algorithms

Q. Who has more fear of mathematics, boys or girls?

Dr. Fozia: Both, but I think girls are conditioned to believe that they will not be good at math.

Q. What is the main reason for math phobia among children here?

Dr. Fozia: It has to do with how we teach mathematics and what portion of the content is emphasized. We tend to emphasize on knowing the right formula or following the right procedure. This means a good student develops good procedural fluency. There is no room for creativity or independent thinking.

Q. As a math expert, what do you think should be done to get rid of this math phobia?

Dr. Fozia: We need to expose students to the creative elements of mathematics. Let them engage in mathematical activities where they can see the relevance of math in their daily lives. They need to experience real mathematical thought - not formulas and procedures alone. 

Q. How do you make math interesting for students?

Dr. Fozia: We, at the university, have been running a program for school children called IMPACT (Igniting Mathematical Potential and Creative Thought) for the last four years. The students engage in hands-on mathematical activities that expose them to deep mathematical ideas in a fun and interesting way. We also organized a two-day math festival in March this year that included a student competition and a math exhibition. It was attended by close to 300 children. The children love these programs and from their responses it is clear that they begin to see mathematics in a different light.

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