August 08, 2008

Teachers learn to conquer their own math fear

by K.C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Math fear choked the classroom like a bad smell. You could see it in the slumped bodies, the bowed heads, the averted eyes -- and these were the math teachers.

“Some of the teachers were showing the exact same behavior as their kids,” said Susanne C. Ashby, a research project specialist with Southern Illinois University Carbondale’s College of Education and Human Services.

The teachers -- 19 from the Carbondale elementary district, six from the Murphysboro school district and an additional nine from faith-based schools in Chester and Steeleville -- had enrolled in Rural Access Through Mathematics Professional Development.

This three-year project, headed by Ashby and Interim Associate Dean James E. Bordieri, aims to help these teachers conquer their own math anxiety and improve their teaching skills in the subject. The hypothesis: Confident teachers + improved abilities = better learning/higher student test scores.

Media Advisory

Reporters may attend a two-day Summer Mathematics Institute workshop for teachers set for 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Aug. 11-12 at the Carbondale school district central offices on Giant City Road. For information on the best time to visit, call or e-mail Susanne Ashby at 618/453-2415 or

Among the teachers’ first tasks: Take some tests.

“We brought them in and tested them to death,” Ashby said. “Talk about high math anxiety -- it was palpable throughout the whole four days!”

The teachers had reason to be anxious -- some of them had not scored as well as they thought they would on the math skills portion of the tests.

“Research says that’s typical of elementary school teachers-- their backgrounds are often in the language arts or social studies,” said Ashby, who earned her own undergraduate degree in English.

“Math and science teachers tend to go into the upper grades.”

In addition to the math skills test, participants answered questions about their level of math fear.

“While they were taking that test, they wore a finger cuff that could record their physiological reactions so we could compare self-rated assessments with what was actually happening -- they were really sweating!” Ashby said.

“We had pretty much a 50-50 split among those who showed anxiety; it was either mild or high.”

The teachers also took a test that revealed their openness to change. Those at the lower ends of that scale tended to score higher on the anxiety ratings.

“It will be interesting to see if we can ease that anxiety whether that helps them to become more open to embracing change in their mathematics instruction,” Ashby said.

In mathematics, critical thinking involves the ability to understand the problem and figure out a solution rather than learning a formula by rote and using it on workbook problems. A final set of tests pinpointed what critical thinking skills the teachers already possessed and then examined their ability to put those skills to work.

“Research says improving critical thinking skills in teachers helps students improve theirs,” Ashby said.

After identifying their weak areas, teachers have designed their own professional development plans for brushing up on their mathematics knowledge with one-on-on tutoring, online instruction or small group classes. If desired, a math anxiety counselor can work with individual teachers and small groups on techniques for controlling or at least counteracting their anxiety, while personal coaches can guide them through the application of critical thinking to their classrooms.

“The crux of this is that it’s an individualized plan,” Ashby said. “The teachers don’t have to do it all -- they can choose what they want based on their assessments at the beginning of the project.”

Teacher response to the project so far tells Ashby the idea is right on target.

“I had one teacher say, ‘I just want to be able to help my students do math without having to apologize for not being able to help them very well,’” she said.