Math anxiety focus of professor’s research, teacher strives to assist students

Harold Edwards uses real-life scenarios to teach his math class.
Photo submitted
Robert C. Schoen

By St. Clair Murraine
Outlook Staff Writer

Math teacher Harold Edwards doesn’t put up with his students struggling with solving the kinds of questions that come up in his classroom.

Instead of trying to reach the students who find math challenging with a conventional approach, he uses real-life scenarios to help them along. 

For example, Edwards takes the problem that asks how does 5x equal 20. He removes the difficulty out of the problem by simply breaking it down with the question if something cost $5 how many would $20 purchase.

That, said Edward, a math teacher at Rickards High School, often is eye-opening to his students and helps them develop an appreciation for math.

“If I put it on paper they don’t understand, but when I put it in real-life terms, they got it,” Edwards said. “I have to break it down in ways they understand. I always talk about money because all kids like money. I associate it with real-world things like rent. It makes the light come on for them. I try to break it down the lowest so they can understand it.”

Robert C. Schoen, an associate professor at Florida State University, believes that Edwards has the right idea because he uses what students know to help them embrace math. What makes comprehending difficult for students is math anxiety, Schoen said. 

In his quest for answers, Schoen has done research that led to two ways of teaching math. He calls them Florida Mathematics Formative Assessment System and Cognitively Guided Instruction. Both programs focus on what students can do.

“Every child, even a 5-year-old brings life experiences and the ability to think; the ability to learn,” Schoen said. “They bring that with them to the classroom and the teacher’s job is to find out what they know and help that to grow.”

Math anxiety has been getting a lot of attention with the recent start of school. Some of the reluctance that children have about math was brought on by the pandemic during the last two years, he said.

However, math anxiety has a long history and children are developing resentment toward math at an early age. That, Schoen said, could be because teachers tend to use a one-size-fits-all approach.

In some cases, kids hear that they don’t measure up to being good at math. Such a tone often comes from teachers who themselves are dealing with math anxiety, Schoen said.

The CGI program that he developed could be the answer. 

It helps teachers to “celebrate what a child knows or what they can do and accept that,” Schoen said.

But solving the issue of anxiety isn’t immediate because it is so ingrained in some students.

 “We think it causes avoidance of math, which has a feedback mechanism,” Schoen said. “If they avoid math they are not going to get better at it.”