Who's Afraid of the Big Square Root?

Author: John Monczunski

They slink low in their chairs, avoid eye contact at all costs, and pray the mantra for student invisibility: “Oh please, please don’t call on me.”

It’s easy for teachers to diagnose “Math Fright,” but treating afflicted students is another matter. According to Julianne Turner, associate professor of psychology, those who most need math help often become the most adept at avoiding it. Research by Turner and colleagues, reported in a recent issue of the Journal of Educational Psychology, suggests a remedy.

Students will go to great lengths to avoid participating if they believe making a mistake will cause them to lose face before their peers. In a study of 1,092 sixth-graders in 65 classrooms at four diverse schools, Turner found that the classroom learning environment was key to solving the avoidance problem. Teachers in what she calls “high mastery/low avoidance” classrooms removed the “fear factor” from math instruction by making sure that perplexed students did not feel ashamed or inadequate. Such teachers placed more emphasis on understanding concepts and procedures than on arriving at a correct answer for its own sake.

To help students learn, these teachers often would coach students through a problem, offering hints and seeking assistance from other students. When the student appeared to understand, the teacher gave the child an opportunity to demonstrate that understanding.

Many of the most successful teachers put students at ease by using humor as well as offering words of encouragement, Turner says. They model their own thinking process, demonstrating that “being unsure, learning from mistakes and asking questions [are] natural and necessary parts of learning.”