Reversing the curse of math trauma

In this column, Biance and Fameno detail their experiences of transitioning from high school to university, and undergraduate to postgraduate, and share practical strategies to overcoming math trauma and working through failure as a mathematics student.

Illustration by Nino Mekanarishvili

The transition from high school to university, and from undergraduate to postgraduate, presents significant challenges. In high school, you’re a big fish in a small pond, but at university, you become a small fish in a much larger pond. The initial weeks of university can be overwhelming, affecting many students’ academic performance and leading to imposter syndrome.

Bianca’s Undergraduate Experience:

During my school years, I struggled to adapt to the drastic changes between academic levels. I disliked mathematics because of my initial difficulties and believed I’d never grasp certain mathematical concepts. This lack of confidence and anxiety translated into stress during my first semester at university when facing complex problems and tests.

The teaching approach and student mindset are factors to consider when addressing academic trauma and anxiety. Early education should focus on teaching students how to approach subjects like mathematics, fostering analytical and problem-solving skills. High school mathematics may not adequately prepare students for the depth and volume of information expected at the university level, contributing to math-related trauma.

The transition to university can be the first time students assume complete responsibility for their education. As an undergraduate, you must learn how to cope with failure and accept criticism from instructors, which can vary in its delivery.

Fameno’s Postgraduate Experience:

During my undergraduate studies, my worth was often tied to feedback from professors and fellow students. Deadlines and exams motivated me to excel, and grades were a measure of success. However, postgraduate studies involve working primarily with supervisors, and the absence of grades and exams can lead to a loss of motivation.

Within months, I experienced a decline in motivation and self-doubt. Distractions, sleep disturbances, and procrastination became daily challenges. External manifestations included increased phone use and an unhealthy desire for sweets, my body’s way of seeking dopamine. Self-discipline, especially in postgraduate studies, and physical health became crucial in managing intensive workloads.

Setbacks are part of the tertiary education journey, ranging from minor failures to significant challenges like failing exams. To overcome these setbacks and ensure career success, a growth mindset is essential. While it may be tempting to adopt a “failure” mindset, self-discipline, regular physical activity, and effective time management can help. Progress may not always be linear, and moments of doubt are natural, but staying focused on goals is key.

Illustration by Liani Malherbe

In mathematics, there are often multiple ways to prove a result, and life similarly offers various paths to success. Understanding relativity, setting individual goals, and avoiding comparisons to others can reduce pressure and foster enjoyment of the learning process. Perfectionism, though admirable, can hinder progress.

Practical strategies can prevent math-related trauma, including self-guided learning, building a support network, seeking guidance from instructors, breaking down complex tasks, and gamifying problem-solving. Developing a network of like-minded peers can enhance your learning experience.

Students should remember that their value isn’t solely determined by grades and transcripts. A supportive network plays a crucial role in personal development. Choosing a supervisor with a compatible personality can also be beneficial.

Every situation, including failure and difficulties, offers valuable learning experiences. Viewing failures as opportunities for improvement, rather than sources of anxiety and depression, can lead to personal growth and enhanced resilience. Mathematics equips individuals with valuable skills like logic, problem-solving, and creative thinking, which have real-world applications and improve with practice.

Biance de Beer

BSc Student

Fameno Rakotoniaina

MSc Student

Illustration by by Kirsten de Beer

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