Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Adult Student Returning to School and the Math Hurdle

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 More adults than ever before are returning to formal education. Some want to learn what
they have failed to learn in high school. Some have made the momentous decision to
earn a high school diploma or to go to college for the first – or second or third – time.
And some, particularly those in mid-life, want additional education in order to recharge a
stalled career or start and entirely new one.

The growth of adult literacy programs, whether it be  community-based, math software, or other online mediums, has made it
even more possible than ever for adults who want to learn to do so in the comfort of their
own homes and communities. The decision to return to an educational environment
brings with it expectations and fears, both real and imagined.

One of the more prevalent fears is math phobia.
Math phobia is real, harmful and often reality-based. It is often based in one or more experiences in a person’s life which caused him pain, such as being ridiculed by powerful people or losing an important position or even a loved one because of a perceived deficit in mathematical ability. It is a serious impediment to success in the social and economic world we live in and it can devastate its victims by making it impossible to succeed in career searching or in solving problems of daily living.

Unlike language, which is heard, seen, spoken and used every day, or science, which is
often taught a with hands-on approach, one does not often remember the finer points of
a subject like geometry or trigonometry or algebra if they are not applied on a regular
basis toward solving the practical problems of one’s life after leaving school. The fact
that most math courses are taught in an abstract manner, often using mostly visual cues
which are not concrete, makes it less likely for students who learn primarily by hearing or
moving to remember techniques and principles.

While it often takes simply a jolt of courage and determination to return to studying math
for literacy or for career advancement or for pleasure, there is help available to alleviate
the pain of math phobia:

  • Talking with a trusted friend about the fear is one way to proceed. People who harbor fear and do not share it are less likely to feel that it is possible to overcome the fear.
  • Purchasing a book or video to be in control of the subject, literally to keep it under wraps until you are ready to look at it, gives a sense of mastery from the beginning.
  • Exchanging lessons with a student who is stronger in math but less able in an area of your own strength may work. For instance, if you are a skilled baker or carpenter or tailor and a friend is stronger in math than you are, you might exchange services and tips. This will enable you to work from a position of strength rather than form weakness.
  • Purchasing a short-term or long-term tutoring service, such as Tutorial Channel, gives you the control over your own time and privacy while re-introducing math into your life.
  • Starting with small victories, such as adding a column of figures on a grocery receipt or calculating the tip on a meal with a calculator, may help. The longest journey begins with the first small step.
  • Being compassionate with yourself is essential. As with any phobia, one anticipates fear of loss or pain when the essence of the fear is experienced. Understand that the fear is due to a traumatic event or to a series of events which were beyond your control at a time when you did not have the power you now have.
  • Don’t expect your concerns to dissipate overnight. It may take an extended period of time with ups and downs to gain control over this fear. Be patient with yourself.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that others have faced this difficulty
before you and many have overcome it. Building the mathematical part of you might be
an experience similar to starting an exercise plan or taking vitamins: good for you in the
long run, gives you aches and pains and side effects at first, and something that might be
priceless for your future well-being.


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