Anxiety, fear and antipathy for maths, stats and OR

I love mathematical subjects. I love statistics and teaching statistics, and I love Operations Research and teaching Operations Research. But I do not represent the majority of people in the world and I definitely do not represent the majority of my students who come into my courses.

Many people don't really like mathematics.

People take my courses because they are required to. They don’t really want to do statistics and quantitative methods. However, by the end of the course, many have discovered, to their joy, that they CAN do maths, and actually enjoy it. It is empowering for them and wonderful for me. Emotional students have told me how the course has changed the way they see themselves and mathematical subjects. One young woman had previously failed two traditional statistics courses. However after passing our course, she went on to further stats courses, and eventually had a marketing internship involving data analysis, worked as a tutor on our course and completed a postgraduate degree. This is the letter she sent me after passing the course:

“I just thought I would let you know that I have really enjoyed this course, considering I hated maths this is not to be taken lightly! I was told it would be a good course for me to take but was slightly sceptical. However, I think being able to continuously see your progress and results gave me a lot of motivation and a great sense of achievement.

People enjoy succeeding.

“The tutorials were also fantastic, the tutors were always friendly and very helpful and a lot of credit must go to them. Obviously without these tutorials I would not have passed the course.

“Thank you for offering a course that has enabled me to understand and even at times enjoy stats!”

Ideas for helping students overcome antipathy towards mathematical things.


One difference I have noticed between people who succeed at maths and those who don’t, is what they do when they get something wrong. When I do a problem and get a wrong answer, I do not see it as a personal failure, but try again. However people who are less secure in their ability to do maths get upset at each wrong answer, and give up easily so that they can avoid further failure.They seem to take mistakes personally.

We do two things in our course to help with this. We have a large bank of problems for students to try over and over again, and tell them explicitly that we expect them to do the practice test at least seven times before they are ready for the supervised test. This way they see the failure as part of the process, rather than as a reflection of their own inadequacy. Secondly we begin our course with quite easy material and build up to more difficult. This way they start to experience success, and learn that the key to passing is putting in more time.


Another issue is that people who dislike mathematics, often do so because it feels irrelevant and a waste of time. Sometimes this is an excuse, but, tied in with the first reason, it is easy to see that people will not spend a lot of time dong something that makes them feel like a failure, and for which they cannot see the purpose. So another thing we do in our course is make sure that every single example is there because it is useful for them, and has a real world application to which they can relate, or at least which they can see is important. For example, our questions on Binomial distribution are based on marketing, human resources, and retailing examples. Our analysis is done on data collected from the students themselves. In our Operations Research course we get them to work out a MCDM scenario related to what they will do at the end of the course. Statistics and Operations Research are inherently interesting and practical, so it should not be difficult to keep them that way.

Borrowed self-efficacy

Self-efficacy is the belief a person has in how well they can accomplish a task. Studies into effective learning have found that the level of self-efficacy a person has regarding a certain subject or learning in general is a good predictor of how well they will do. You could say that it may be quite realistic – that they believe they can do it because they can. But studies have controlled for that and the effect is still there. Now we can’t inject people with self-efficacy, but we can lend it to them. Self-efficacy can be borrowed from the instructor or the course. We tell them that this is a course for people who have previously found maths difficult. We tell them how successful other people like them have been in the course. We tell them how well it is designed and how much we are willing to help them to succeed in learning the material. Students feel this encouragement and take heart from it.


People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care. I believe you need to love the students. I’m talking here about genuine, respectful love for other human beings. We need to care about them as people, not just students in our classes. We need to love our subject and believe intrinsically in it. This shines through, even when we don’t give face-to-face lectures. One student told me he knew I was a good teacher because I was so thorough. I am thorough because I love the students and want them to succeed.

Love is not a word used often in secular higher-education. However I have been privileged to see many great teachers, whose whole approach was centered in love for the students.

These are my ways to help students who are anxious, fearful or less than keen to be taking my course.  I teach them to see failure as a step to success, build the material up in small steps, make it real, help them develop self-efficacy, and let them feel how much I care. The rewards are so worth the effort!

5 thoughts on “Anxiety, fear and antipathy for maths, stats and OR

  1. I definitely agree with the four ideas you’ve addressed here to help students “overcome antipathy towards mathematical things.” Perserverance is a prevalent term in the new Common Core Standards. It’s so important for kids to learn to struggle, to know that struggle is a sign that learning will take place if they perservere. I would hope that “love” for the students comes naturally as a teacher, but it’s not easy to show this love especially for new teachers when they feel overwhelmed with the stress and high demands of teaching.

  2. Pingback: Statistics Textbooks suck out all the fun. | Learn and Teach Statistics and Operations Research

  3. Pingback: Teaching experimental design | Learn and Teach Statistics and Operations Research

  4. Pingback: Teaching a service course in statistics | Learn and Teach Statistics and Operations Research

  5. Pingback: Pedagogical Content Knowledge | Learn and Teach Statistics and Operations Research

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s