A dear friend of mine is in the second year of their mathematics degree, and when they tell people this, the response is pretty much ubiquitous.
I could never do that.
There seems to be a strong perception that mathematics is an inherently stressful and difficult area of study. Part of this perception seems to arise from the frequency of maths anxiety. Far from just hating maths or struggling with it, maths anxiety typically involves strong feelings of dread, stress and anxiety around tasks that involve maths. Maths anxiety is estimated to affect 20% of students, and up to 50% of adults. I’d never experienced maths anxiety in high school, so I didn’t have any idea what it was like until after a horrible, stressful statistics exam last semester. When I got home after the exam, I sat down against my door and cried and cried out of sheer relief that it was over. When I went to pack away my notes later that evening, I saw the sheet covered with formulas and equations, and even the sight of it made my heart start to pound.
Dr Ben Zunica, from the Maths Education department at USyd, hypothesises that maths anxiety is partly a product of the pressure on students to get the right answer. Maths, as a subject, involves a lot of trial and error, and Dr Zunica has observed in his years as a maths teacher that students struggle with the pressure to get it right every time. Dr Bronwyn Reid O’Conner, who is also involved in research into maths anxiety, remarked that this trend causes students, particularly women, to underestimate their own abilities and consequently avoid enrolling in STEM degrees that call for mathematics. Dr O’Conner also suggests that maths anxiety is neurochemically different from general anxiety in a way that generates a vicious cycle of negativity — affecting performance and leading students to falsely believe that they’re “just not a maths person”.
Both Dr Zunica and Dr O’Connor identified maths anxiety as much more common in women than in men. Dr O’Conner discussed the major role of stereotypes in setting up young female students to underestimate themselves. Similarly, demographics stereotyped as being “good at maths” can develop maths anxiety as a result of trying to live up to the stereotype. Considering the effect maths anxiety is having on the representation of women in STEM, there is little initiative to combat its negative influence. The Mathematics Learning Hub is an excellent resource for students struggling with maths content, but offers little avenue for reducing the anxiety that maths can trigger.
Unfortunately, I have experienced a negative culture around engaging with maths from the perspective of my Psychology major. Compulsory statistics courses in the program engaged with students from an inflexible, needlessly competitive angle creating undue stress. In our first lecture, the introduction consisted mainly of “none of you want to be here, so let’s just get it over with.” As the course continued, I witnessed perfectly capable students stumble and get left behind. The USyd School of Psychology’s current approach to teaching mathematics is unable to support students who struggle with maths anxiety, and similar attitudes may be contributing to the larger problems in STEM recruitment.
Maths anxiety is endemic in education, but it is highly manageable. A dislike of maths is understandable, but the chances are it has more to do with the cultural pressure of success than your own abilities. The academics that I consulted recommend moving away from judgements about your own ability, and engaging with a comfortable level of maths in a low-pressure environment. Be prepared to be wrong, and to learn through trial and error. Give it a shot, you’ll surprise yourself.