For many students, taking a math class is something more than just a hassle. Math classes can cause things like anxiety and a mental shutdown that lasts longer than the course — it can become the deciding factor in a student’s choice of major or career path. This math-induced anxiety can develop into something called “math trauma,” says University of Oregon College of Education Professor Jennifer Ruef.
Ruef has done extensive research on what causes math trauma and how to fix it through instructing future educators. She started her research on math trauma after spending more than 10 years as a teacher in schools from Madison, Wis. to Oakland, Calif.
Part of her research focuses on how students identify themselves, which includes the identity of being “good” or “bad” at math.
“You get this evidence, but I think it’s flawed evidence,” Ruef said. “Because if all you know is that you were bad at math through timed math tests or you didn’t do well on quizzes or you had a really awful experience in geometry in the ninth grade, those are all cultural contexts that are dependent on who taught the class, how it was organized and what counted as success in this class.”
For Ruef, a large reason she became dedicated to math was when one of her instructors told her that she had reached her limit in the math world.
“I told him he was wrong,” Ruef said. “And I cried. I cried — ugly, ugly crying, because I was angry. I went out and took extra math classes, because I wanted to prove to myself and to the department that I was able to do this work.”
Ruef noticed that having math anxiety and trauma travels farther back than being in a college math class. Math trauma can start at a young age, with doing poorly on one test and continuing from there.
“Your response to doing math elicits a post traumatic stress response that blocks you,” Ruef said. “What we do know is when our anxiety spikes or our fear spikes, they block your working memory, which is the part of your memory that you need to solve problems.”
Shannon Sweeny is an assistant professor at Northern Arizona University, and has worked with Ruef on studying math trauma since 2017 with their other partner, Chris Willingham. Sweeny says they started their partnership after realizing they had all written their dissertations on what made people “good” at math. She says people who experience math trauma are often surprised to find out they’re not alone.
“People who experienced math trauma or anxiety often find that they are not alone and others have had very similar experiences,” Sweeny said. “In terms of conquering math anxiety or trauma, it is important to realize that success in math in possible for everyone but success is not determined by speed and competition. Instead, success in math is possible with effort, learning from mistakes, and taking risks.”
UO student Mercedes Wright, a junior advertising and Italian major, has yet to take any college math classes, but isn’t looking forward to fulfilling the requirement.
“It’s going to be a challenge,” Wright said. “I wouldn’t consider myself very good at math, mainly because I’m a creative major, so numbers and sequences and stuff like that aren’t really my thing. I’ll definitely try super hard and pass with a B or a C, but math isn’t something that comes easily to me.”
What makes math so difficult is that the way math has been taught for so long doesn’t always work for everyone, Ruef says. Part of her work at UO has been to teach future math instructors that their students think differently and try to prevent future math anxiety and trauma.
“If we create an experience where there are many, many ways to be counted as successful and there are many, many ways to exit and be successful, we’re going to have more successful people,” Ruef said.
Much of their research has found that changing student math success involves understanding that a student’s intelligence and abilities with math can be developed through a “growth” mindset that emphasizes continuous effort, instead of the “fixed” mindset that states a student is born with the intelligence and ability to do math and can’t be changed, Sweeny said.
Wright is one of many students who have grown up dreading math and math tests, wondering if she was going to pass or not.
“I would say that math is a cause for a lot of people’s anxiety,” Wright said. “Particularly math, it’s not like writing where there’s a lot of ways you can work around a problem and interpret it on your own, but with math it’s a very definite, ‘This is the answer, there’s no way around it.’”
Their research also has found success in having students reflect on their math anxiety of trauma through drawing what their relationship with math looks like, or creating a conversation between themselves and a math character so they’re able to express their feelings and experiences, Ruef said.
While the structure of math classes may still cause anxiety and trauma in many students, being able to change how math is taught can open up more opportunities in any field a student chooses.
“I’m fighting to see as many people find as many ways as possible to be successful in math so they can have more life opportunities open to them,” Ruef said. “I’m not saying everybody needs to go into a STEM career. I’m saying everyone should get to do that if that’s what they want.”