You spent $243 at a restaurant on the Las Vegas Strip, treating your in-laws — who are in town for a visit to Sin City — to a nice meal.
The bill hits the table. But the handy tip calculator is missing from the bottom of the check.
You break into a sweat. What is 20% of $243?
Does even the thought of this scenario make you nervous? If so, you might have math anxiety.
Some UNLV students who participate in the Summer Math Bridge program or the Math Learning Center’s preparatory courses find that they’re in the same spot too.
They might freeze on a math exam even though they thoroughly studied and had a firm grasp of the test material the night before. They might be attending a presentation on another topic, but thoughts of math pop into their head and nervousness creeps in.
It’s why UNLV staff are focused on building up students’ math confidence.
“I think a lot of students are initially scared of math,” said Kayla Wright, learning programs coordinator for the Academic Success Center. “I’m not sure if all of our students come in with math anxiety, but our main purpose is to make sure that when they get out of Math Bridge, they’re confident with math and they understand that it’s not just about abstract numbers. It’s also about critical thinking, problem solving, thinking outside of the box, and making sure that students know that math can be practical in real life.”
A winning formula
Rita Assad, a Math Bridge team leader and a senior studying mathematics at UNLV, learned this in the same way she’s trying to help the students in her summer classes.
“I didn’t love math at first,” Assad said. “I actually started out in a preparatory math class.”
She was exploring a variety of classes as a new UNLV student, but she soon came to find out that math — semester after semester — was the only consistent part of her studies.
“Because of that consistency, it made me want to pursue it more, and as I got into higher levels of math, it became more and more fun,” Assad said. “It wasn’t until I took Calc 1 that I decided to pursue mathematics as my major.”
In that class, it finally clicked: Math can be used to solve real-world problems.
“I got really lucky in Calc 1 and Calc 2 — I had two really good professors who made me want to do math more and more,” Assad said. “And I want to be that for other students.”
Math Bridge is set up in a way to provide the winning formula that Assad encountered, but much earlier — in the summer before college begins. The program combines dedicated tutors who work collaboratively with students to tackle a breadth of math topics with the program ALEKS — the intuitive, self-paced platform that isolates each student’s own learning pathway, and builds upon their previous knowledge.
Half the battle, Assad said, is coming to class with a positive mindset.
“If you go into a math class thinking you can’t do it, then you have already lost,” she said.
The program also brings in presenters to help students understand growth mindset, and to provide students with solutions for the anxiety they might feel when they enter a math classroom. One solution is for students to journal about their feelings before a big math test, said Amanda Howard, a graduate student who teaches psychology 101 at UNLV. Another strategy is for students to determine how best they learn, and identify resources — YouTube videos for visual learners, or additional practice problems in the back of a textbook for those who need repetition — to support their learning.
“We tell the students that it might take practice, but you can learn this stuff,” said Cheyenne Rogers, academic transitions coordinator for the Academic Success Center. “We understand that some may have math anxiety; there are resources at UNLV that we can provide to help you overcome this.”
Last summer, 17% of students in the Math Bridge program were confident about math at the beginning of the summer. By the end, 72% expressed confidence in manipulating numbers.
In a computer lab on UNLV’s campus, one student’s confidence was growing by the day.
Mauriceia Roberson was using the quadratic formula to solve the equation that Assad assigned to the class. As she jotted down the steps in her notebook, she explained how math anxiety had affected her in the past.
“Math makes me nervous,” she said. “I’ll have everything in my brain, but when I sit down to do the problem, I blank out.”
It was only the second week of the program, but Roberson said she knew she had made a good choice when she signed up for Math Bridge.
“I decided to get help instead of just letting it go,” Roberson said. “I’m getting smarter.”
Math anxiety checklist
Do you think you might have math anxiety? You might if you experience any of these symptoms:
- Nervousness: This isn’t just about being nervous when you’re about to go to math class. This can happen when you’re sitting in an auditorium listening to a presentation, but your mind is spinning thinking about math.
- Underachievement/Avoidance: A symptom of math anxiety is underachieving in academics overall. A child in grade school who’s struggling with math anxiety might be missing a lot of classes, avoiding their homework, or not participating in class.
- Freezing: You know the answer and you’re capable of solving the math equation, but you shut down when you’re put on the spot — if you’re called on unexpectedly in class or when you sit down to take a math exam.
- Negative self-talk, lack of confidence: Negative self-talk manifests itself in thoughts such as: “It’s not math that’s hard, I’m just stupid. I can’t do this. I’m never going to be able to do this. I’m hopeless. I’m never going to be able to learn.”
- Feeling alone, feeling of permanency: This means that you feel like you’re alone in the problem. You feel like everyone around you is getting it and you’re not. You could also feel like you can’t change it, and that your struggle with math is just a part of you.
- Panic: This is one of the more common symptoms. You might be going up to the board to answer a question, or you might be sitting down to take an exam, and all of a sudden you find that your heart’s racing, you’re shaking, you’re really hot, and sweating.