Confessions of a Reluctant Teacher

March 12, 2010

Math Anxiety

I had a funny realization this weekend at my second job as an SAT preparation tutor.

I realized that the students I was tutoring knew just as much about math as I did, if not more. I was on the “slow track” for math in school: I did make it to pre-calculus in my senior year, but I have completely blocked it out (are there diagrams involved in calculus? I seem to vaguely remember graphing things). I also never took a math class while I was in college. I had only gotten about as far as they had: junior-year algebra. And yet when they faced a difficult math problem in the homework or on a practice test, they brought it to me and I could usually figure it out without finding the answer in the back of the book.

I couldn’t understand why, if they weren’t able to do these problems, I was. It wasn’t because I had done the problem before–I’ve only taught this course a few times, and there are so many practice problems, I hadn’t even begun to work my way through them all. It wasn’t because I am instinctively good at the SAT style of testing math, the way I am with the SAT style of testing reading and writing. In fact, my own SAT math score was so low, it almost disqualified me from being hired by this tutoring company. When I do figure out how to solve the problems, I can never quite believe I did it. It always surprises me. I wondered what could possibly account for the ability gap between me and my students?

How Math is Tested on the SAT

In order to understand the disparity, you have to understand a few things about how the SAT tests math. If you’ve taken the SAT, you may remember that the easiest questions come first, with each subsequent question getting harder, until you reach the end of the section, where the highest difficulty questions are. Surprisingly, the highest difficulty questions are solved using the same basic math skills that are used to solve the easy questions: no need to know trigonometry, calculus, or game theory to answer these questions. The only thing that makes them “harder” is that there are more steps–more chances to trip up, to make an error, to get confused.

Another surprise is that there are often little tricks and ‘hacks’ built into each problem. I tell my students that if they’re looking at a problem and thinking, “Oh man, this is gonna take forever to solve,” they are probably missing something. See, the SAT rewards those who think flexibly about numbers. If the test designers really wanted to evaluate math skills, they wouldn’t let students bring calculators. Especially when you get into more difficult questions, SAT math is all about strategy and how you think about math. If you can figure out what they’re asking for, and mentally create a mathematical map to find it, you can solve the problem. How you approach the problem is the key.

What Are You Trying to Prove?

I have the luxury of approaching the problems with an open, curious mind. I even look forward to the challenge of solving an unfamiliar high-difficulty problem. I know that if I can’t figure out, I’ll just look it up in the back of the book and walk the student through the book’s explanation. All that my students are able to think about is the effect their SAT score will have on their college admissions, or how disappointed their parents will be if they get a low score. They believe that if they can’t figure it out, the implicit judgement will follow them around for the rest of their careers.

It became very clear to me that other people’s expectations of us affect our performance, for better or for worse. When I look at a difficult test question, I generally think, “Oh no…this one looks really tough. Maybe I should just flip to the explanation in the back now.” But then I take a deep breath and remember: I am the teacher. I am supposed to be smart enough and capable enough to figure this out; that’s why this company decided to hire me. So even if I feel confused or intimidated, that vote of confidence gives me the motivation to put pencil to paper and muddle through. It gives me the courage to try, and keep on trying until I get the right answer (or at least several wrong ones).

My students, on the other hand, are approaching the problem from a very different perspective. First of all, while I know that I am there to help, my students know that they are there to be helped. This may encourage them to view themselves as, well, helpless. Secondly, the process of being tested puts students in the uncomfortable spot of having to prove their own intelligence. When they get to the high-difficulty questions, the test is whispering to them, “Here’s where we separate the smart kids from the dumb ones. So go ahead, see if you can solve it. Which pile will you end up in?”

Brain Freeze

In his book How Children Fail, John Holt talks about the tension we experience when we are trying to finish something without making any mistakes. He realizes that some of his students are making mistakes on purpose to break the tension.

“Worrying about mistakes is as bad as–no, worse–than worrying about mistakes they have made. Thus, when you tell a child that he has done a problem wrong, you often hear a sigh of relief. He says, “I knew it would be wrong.” He would rather be wrong, and know it, than not know whether he was wrong or not…When the paper was turned in, the tension was ended. Their fate was in the lap of the gods. They might still worry about flunking the [test], but it was a fatalistic kind of worry, it didn’t contain the agonizing element of choice, there was nothing more they could do about it. Worrying about whether you did the right thing, while painful enough, is less painful than worrying about the right thing to do.”

I think this same relief of tension manifests in SAT takers when they leave an answer blank. Whenever the student brings their question to me, the rest of the problems may be marked up, with their work written out, but the difficult problem is always spotless. I admit I haven’t been doing this very long, but I have never seen a student get stuck in the middle of one of these math problems. When I have faced really difficult problems in my student years, it always felt like some kind of mental paralysis: I’d try frantically to figure out what to do, but all I could think was, “I don’t know. I just don’t know!”  I couldn’t figure out where I was going, how to get there, or even how to begin.

Solving a difficult SAT math question hinges on approaching it properly: you have to look at what the problem says, what it asks for. You have to think about how to use the information given to get from point A to point B. You have to clear your mind and let the numbers and figures speak to you. If you can’t get to that open, curious, relaxed-yet-alert state of mind, you won’t be able to figure out how to approach the problem, and you’ll be sunk. You’ll hand me your paper, saying helplessly, “I didn’t know where to start.”

Thawing Out

I think the only thing that really helped me out of my math anxiety was knowing that I’m no longer judged by my math skills or lack thereof. I’ve relaxed enough to be able to treat them as intriguing challenges, fun ways to stretch my mind. I hate that I can’t give my students the same permission not to worry about it so much. Also, since I haven’t prepared the problem ahead of time, I can’t really “lead” the student through it. I kind of turn the problem over and over in my head, and then once I’ve got it, I hand it to the student and say, “There.” I don’t think that’s really the eye-opening learning experience they need.

Have you suffered from math anxiety? Have you ever helped any one through it? What are your strategies for helping students move from fear to curiosity to delight?

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