Business Standard

Slipping on numbers? Experts suggest how to get over maths phobia

Role of technology comes into play as educators look for fun ways to combat a perennial fear

Math Phobia

Image: WikiHow

Anuradha Mishra New Delhi
“I have always had this fear before every maths exam, I would cry and pray because when I sit for the paper I usually forget everything from the night before,” says Meghna, a Class X student in Bengaluru.

It’s an all too familiar fear among students, who are often pressured by parents to score high percentages. A 2021 survey conducted by Cuemath, an after-school live-class platform in maths, found that 82 per cent of students from Classes VII to X are fearful of the subject.

Mathematics has perennially been regarded as a subject that induces fear and anxiety in many. Maths phobia, also known as arithmophobia, continues to hamper individuals.

Neelakantha Bhanu Prakash, who is known as the world’s fastest human calculator, conducted maths classes in 23 countries under the banner Exploring Infinities’. He found three out of every five children were fearful of maths. “The reason why maths phobia exists at a global level is because it is never really taught contextually,” he tells Business Standard.

In his book A Mathematician’s Lament, Paul Lockhart writes that “mathematics is the art of explanation”. He poses a question” “Why don’t we want our children to learn to do mathematics? Is it that we don’t trust them, that we think it’s too hard?”

When anxiety turns into phobia

The consequences of maths anxiety are far-reaching. Students who struggle with it often avoid mathematics-related tasks, leading to gaps in their knowledge and hindering their academic progress.

“In Class VII, a night before a maths test, my father was teaching me decimals, and he scolded me so much because I couldn't understand basics and I cried repeatedly,” recalls Soumya Sourav Das, a corporate professional. “The fear seeped into my conscience and I couldn't sleep the night before any maths exam in school after that,” Das adds.

The fear of failure and the belief that they are “not good at maths” can have long-lasting effects on an individual’s self-esteem and career prospects. Dev Chauhan, who took the CBSE 12th board exam in humanities this year, says, “I wanted to become a doctor and would have chosen science if I wasn’t so scared of maths.”

How can the problem be solved? Teachers can make all the difference in how a child perceives maths throughout academic life and after. “There should be greater cognitive efforts on the part of students, at Cuemath we call it ‘high ratio’ where students interact and put more effort into learning than teachers explaining,” says Manan Khurma, founder and CEO at Cuemath.

Incorporating real-life applications of mathematics into the curriculum is another effective strategy. By connecting mathematical concepts to practical scenarios (like teaching fractions with examples of a pizza) students can grasp the relevance and importance of the subject, making it more approachable and engaging, say Bhuvana Mani and Preeti Agarwal, Cuemath experts.

This approach not only helps alleviate anxiety but also enhances students' problem-solving skills, critical thinking abilities and logical reasoning.

Role of technology

Numerous interactive and gamified educational platforms have emerged, providing students with a fun and engaging way to learn maths.

To eradicate phobia by making maths fun and relatable as well as promoting it as a sport and an art form, Bhanu Prakash converted his global workshop Exploring Infinities into Bhanzu, an edtech platform.

Exams, competitions and learning are three motivators behind actively engaging in any academic session. But to combat phobia, maths needs to be looked at as a game or sport. For someone who picked up an interest in mathematics through puzzles at a time he was bedridden at home, Bhanu says, “Every parent has to talk about maths not as a challenge for exams but something that goes beyond that.”

Focus needs to be put on the minimum prerequisite to learning a maths concept, he says. “For example, to understand coordinate geometry one should just know the number line. We do just that.”

When mathematics is taught like a mental sport, it builds creative thinking and problem-solving skills in children. Such cognitive skill development helps children with: paying more attention to detail, accuracy, and precision (helps in STEM learning); improving processing speed and classification of information; enhanced memory (visual, spatial, working); and inducing divergent thinking, says Bhanu.

While technology may be addressing maths phobia more recently, there is still much work to be done. From UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak wanting to reverse an “anti-maths” culture in his country to Indian cricket star Virat Kohli admitting he worked harder to pass maths in his 10th board exams than he did for cricket, the phobia is often brought up in public.

Increased awareness, teacher training programmes and ongoing research into effective interventions are crucial for continued improvement of mathematics education. Through innovative teaching strategies, integration of technology, and a supportive learning environment, educators and researchers are actively working to alleviate this anxiety and promote maths literacy.

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First Published: May 25 2023 | 6:18 PM IST

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