Life on Campus / Spring 2014
Fighting Math Anxiety

U of T’s Math Outreach instructors are changing hearts and minds about an often-feared subject


Instructor Janine Newton works with students at the Summer Math Kangaroo Camp

If calculating the restaurant tip puts you in a sweat, you’re not alone – and you’re not so unreasonable, either. There’s a logical reason why so many people develop “math anxiety,” says Felix Recio, senior lecturer emeritus in U of T’s department of mathematics. “Math is almost 100 per cent cumulative. Whatever you meet in Grade 1, you’ll find in Grade 2. And whatever you miss in high school will be trouble at university.”

Recio teaches the Preparing for University Math Program (PUMP) – non-credit courses that help students catch up their math abilities to university level. Recio and his assistants teach some basics, but they also explain how to think mathematically, to approach a complex problem with confidence and figure it out. PUMP courses are open to anyone, and include a high proportion of adults wanting to improve their math abilities, says Recio.

When the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development assessed the math skills of 15-year-olds, Canada scored in the top 15 per cent. Yet the data showed a worrying slide in our scores from a decade ago. For Canada to be a numerate, internationally competitive society, an emphasis on math education is important. Further, says V. Kumar Murty, chair of the math department, “It has to be supplemented with an effort to overcome the stigma that math is only for an elite few.”

PUMP helps more than 100 students each year, but the department hasn’t stopped there. Its outreach initiatives also include Classroom Adventures, a program of summer and weekend workshops that offers high school math teachers (who, says Recio, can’t pass confidence on to their students if they are suffering from anxiety themselves) cool content and help with pedagogical challenges. Zara Nalian (MT 2008) teaches math to gifted Grade 7 and 8 students at the Toronto District School Board and is an enthusiastic fan of the University of Toronto’s offerings. “I got ideas to bring back to my class,” she says, “cool things about mathematics that would fire up their imagination.”

U of T also offers a variety of programs directly for kids, says Pamela Brittain, outreach and special projects coordinator for the department. Their math camps, competitions and mentorships involve hundreds of elementary and high school students from across Canada each year. Math underpins everything from the encryption that lets you bank online to the forces that shape a seashell. “It is beautiful, useful and important,” she says.

Read Math: The Bigger Picture, a response by Kumar Murty to the OECD results:


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