I’ll never forget the warm sweat that would glide down the sides of my shirt as I crept up to the board when Mrs. Phelps would ask me to put a homework problem on the board for Geometry. The room was small and cramped with three menacing whiteboards caving in on me from all around, seemingly bringing me in closer contact with the leering faces of my brilliant, staring peers.
The math system they used at my school was different from others, a strictly Cartesian system, so I basically needed to re-learn math after transferring there for my sophomore year. When they informed me solemnly of their original model early in the fall, it was like they had announced the most difficult material I could possibly imagine would now be provided strictly in Russian. My brain melted, psyche reeled in terror.
More than 20 years ago, it still haunts me with visceral menace, but I imagine I am not alone. The anxiety math moment is like an American Institution. There was even an episode on it in The Wonder Years (to date myself horribly)! Thankfully, these moments of anxiety in math seem to have cures in individual instruction and exposure therapy.
The above link explores a study by Stanford University School of Medicine that suggests that individual tutoring can help ease math anxieties, tested by measuring amygdala response to difficult math equations. By using a form of exposure therapy, repeatedly exposing the subject a source of anxiety in a safe environment to build tolerance over time, students in the study were able to defeat their math phobias under the guidance of a tutor.
Such promising results reinforce what I’ve suspected for a long time: the benefits of tutoring extend beyond the academic to the personal and even the psychic. Hopefully in learning to quell these anxieties, we can together make the process of learning math to be much more than sweaty nightmare for the generation to come.