Math anxiety is a term universally understood as the condition in which a student freezes up or manifests other anxiety symptoms such as dizziness, sweaty palms, nausea, headaches or fatigue during consideration or before taking an examination on fractions decimals or algebra.
Interesting that one doesn’t hear much about grammar anxiety or history anxiety or various other anxieties. Many colleges, including Highlands, routinely offer sessions on coping with math anxiety.
Math anxiety must never be confused with or compared to writer’s block, an affliction what latches on only to graduate students. It’s characterized by days of waiting for inspiration for that all-American composition and features wastebaskets full of crumpled paper untimely ripped out of the typewriter. A modern-day version of writer’s block includes White-Out on the laptop screen.
The person suffering from writer’s block doesn’t experience anxiety, merely a malaise which ends the day final grades get posted.
The worst cases of math anxiety came several years ago when I introduced elements of math in a journalism class. Remember, reporters do a lot of public affairs reporting, covering budget hearings and being privy to countless financial reports. Obviously and obliviously, government officials who crunch the numbers don’t worry about whether reporters comprehend mill levies, pro ratas, partial assessments or ad valorium taxes.
It was in the spirit of helping journalism students understand fiscal and mathematical matters that I began a unit in math as part of a reporting methods course at Highlands. My mistake was to dare use the word “math.” Immediately upon hearing the word, one of my better students, Carol, went into a heightened state of math anxiety.
She simply clammed up, closed her cranial storage unit and went into meltdown. I’d never seen such a reaction, even when I taught in high school and tried to present similar, albeit watered-down, math concepts.
In Carol’s case, the issue became not how we can all profit from grasping simple mathematical concepts but that I “fail to understand the culture of northern New Mexico,” which apparently was non-mathematical and comprehensible only from her point of view. Did Carol mean schools in el norte don’t average students’ grades, or teams don’t keep score, or teachers get paid only on a mas-o-menos basis?
I learned something in after-class counseling with Carol. When I reminded her of the need to balance her budget, as she lived in an off-campus apartment, she replied she wrote checks until a friend at her bank phoned her to say, “Carol, we need a deposit of $17.53 right away.”
I naively assumed I could reach Carol by introducing the mean, median and mode, terms I’d learned in college. The three m’s, by the way, are included in the state-mandated standards my wife Bonnie is required to cover. Most of her third-graders have grasped the terms.
As a person whose math skills are, well, average, I don’t think my expectations were unreasonable. Compared to students in many other countries, Americans lag in math skills. Thanks in part to No Child Left Behind, elementary school students in the U.S. regularly are exposed to decimals, ordinary fractions, standard and metric measurements, geometric shapes, ratios and even algebra.
Let’s say we have a class of 50 students who take an examination and earn scores all the way from zero to 100. The mode is the most frequent score. OK — seven kids earned a 68? That’s the mode, the most common score.
The median is the middle score, in the same way a highway median is in the middle. We rank all the scores, from highest to lowest, select the score exactly in the middle of all the others and we have the median.
And the mean is what most people call the average. It takes work, but it’s worth it. We simply add all the scores and divide the total by the number of scores, in this case 50. That gives us the mean.
Each of the m’s is helpful and each gives a slightly different picture of the class. But here’s where things went south:
In Carol’s class there were 11 students. During classroom exercises, we’d write fictitious grades for each student and have them do the computations. Instinctively, every student on the planet knows how to get an average: simply add up all the scores and divide by the number of scores.
As the semester drew on, I noticed that Carol’s answers were always radically different from the others. And my mistake — I realized years later — was in telling the students each day to “divide by 11” — that was the number of students in the class.
It turns out that for much of her career, Carol used the “divide by 11” rule no matter how many scores there were. How did she average individual or group grades using that formula, when the class size might have been much larger — or smaller? Depending on the size of the group, the grades Carol assigned could have been extremely high, or the alternative.
The Carol experience has taught me never to take things for granted. But I’m thankful the journalism class contained only 11 students; if it had had, say, three times as many student imagine how much lower the grades of Carol’s students would have been.
Before New Mexico adopted Daylight Saving Time, whenever we stepped across the bridge to Juarez, we’d notice that suddenly it was an hour later. It’s no wonder we felt so tired so suddenly.
Well, some of the digital clocks in our town are either ahead or behind by one hour. To their credit, time keepers have adjusted the minutes but can’t all agree on the hour.
The RHS clock on Mills reads an hour later; the Community First branch clock is an hour too early, as is the new clock at Tony Serna Elementary. Digital clocks by Sierra Vista, Memorial Middle School and West Las Vegas High School are right on time.
It’s true that eventually some of the clocks will provide the correct time, when we go back on standard time, but in the meantime we need to add or subtract an hour mentally.
That’s about as daunting as dividing by 11.
Art Trujillo is copy editor at the Optic and a contributing member of the newspaper’s Editorial Board. He may be reached by calling 425-6796 or by e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.