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Curbing mathematics phobia among students

25 February 2016   |   1:07 am
IN February last year, a good number of dailies in Britain splashed banner headlines announcing the exploit of Nigeria’s Esther Okade, who gained admission to the United Kingdom’s Open University to study for a degree in mathematics.
Private candidates writing the 2015 West African Senior School Certificate Examination

Private candidates writing the 2015 West African Senior School Certificate Examination

Recently, the Director/ Chief Executive of National Mathematics Centre (NMC), Prof. Adewale Solarin, regretted the dearth of specialist to handle basic areas of mathematics, particularly algebra in Nigerian universities. He said this dearth of specialist has forced most Nigerian universities to use non-experts to teach algebra. In this report, RUTH ADEKUNLE, ferrets out factors that have helped mathematics phobia to continue thriving among students and steps to take to reverse the trend.

IN February last year, a good number of dailies in Britain splashed banner headlines announcing the exploit of Nigeria’s Esther Okade, who gained admission to the United Kingdom’s Open University to study for a degree in mathematics.

The Telegraph in its February 23, 2015 edition, particularly noted that Okade, then 10, was “… finding time between playing with her dolls to study for a mathematics degree with the Open University.”

The paper went on: “She’s a big fan of Disney’s Frozen, and loves playing with her dolls. But Okade is also a university undergraduate after starting a degree at the age of 10.

“She enrolled three weeks ago and is already top of the class, scoring 100 per cent on a recent test. Okade, from Walsall, in the West Midlands, isn’t the only member of her family with a talent for numbers – her six-year-old brother Isaiah is already taking an A-level in mathematics.

Her mother, Efe, said applying to the university was “an interesting process because of her age… We even had to talk to the vice chancellor. After they interviewed her, they realised that this has been her idea from the beginning. From the age of seven, Esther has wanted to go to university. But I was afraid it was too soon. She would say, ‘Mum, when am I starting?’, and go on and on and on.

“Finally, after three years she told me, ‘Mum I think it is about time I started university now.” She applied in August, and after a phone interview, an essay and a mathematics examination, she finally got the news in December that she had been accepted on to the course. She was flying… She was so happy.”

But to most Nigerian students, the mere mention of the word mathematics fills them with goose bumps. A good percentage of them loathe the subject to the point that they veer off to disciplines that do not list the subject as a pre-requisite for admission into college.

The importance of mathematics as a subject or as a course of study cannot be over-emphasised. That perhaps informed Roger Bacon (1214-1294), an English Franciscan friar, philosopher, scientist and scholar of the 13th century to posit that, “Neglect of mathematics works injury to all knowledge, since he who is ignorant of it cannot know the other sciences or the things of the world.”

In her article titled, “Role of Mathematics in the Development of Society, assistant professor, Department of Teacher Training & Non-Formal Education, Faculty of Education, Jamia Millia Islamia University, India, Dr Roohi Fatima, further buttressed the pride of place the subject occupies in the scheme of things in any given society.

“Mathematics occupies a crucial and unique role in human societies and represents a strategic key in the development of the whole mankind. The ability to compute, related to the power of technology and to the ability of social organisation, and the geometrical understanding of space-time, that is the physical world and its natural patterns, show the role of mathematics in the development of a society.

At a psychological level, mathematicians say exposure to the subject helps in developing an analytical mind and assists in better organisation of ideas and accurate expression of thoughts.

Drifting back home, scores recorded by students in most internal and external examinations, paint a picture that suggests that most students are horrified by the subject and only make efforts to record grades that would make them meet up with the requirements for admission into higher institutions.

According to the Vice Principal (Administration), Command Day Secondary School (CDSS), Ojo, Lagos, Mrs. Aduke Hassan, the nonchalant attitude of some mathematics teachers, who fail to go the extra mile in helping students understand the subject is key among factors that fuel students’ hatred for the subject.

Hassan, who maintained that good mathematics teachers were rare to find, also added that when some teachers make students feel like it is a must for them to love mathematics, they create fear in the minds of the students, and when fear sets in, students will never have interest in the subject.

According to her, “Teachers should at all times be creative with their teaching methods. But unfortunately, many teachers promote the notion that female students cannot perform as well as their male counterparts in the study of mathematics. Some teachers do not have the belief that girls are capable of succeeding in mathematics than the boys, and when teachers promote such negative ideas, female students in most cases give in and fail to put in more efforts.

“So, teachers need to give equal opportunities to male and female students to enable them compete on level grounds for success. They should also at all times make their lessons more interactive as this will enable students throw in their own ideas as they grapple with each topic. While they should also make themselves available to the students whenever they are confronted with knotty issues, they should also ensure that take home assignments should not be too cumbersome as students are sometimes already stressed out and unable to finish the exercises, which makes them scared to attend classes.”

The school administrator urged Mathematics Association of Nigeria (MAN) and relevant non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to regularly organise seminars and conferences, where the plights of teachers as well as other pressing educational issues would be discussed.

“Frequent seminars and workshops should be organised where teachers can meet and interact on innovative instructional strategies that can make mathematics learning meaningful in the educational sector. There is the tendency for teachers to think of teaching in terms of forcing some subject contents in to the students brain, instead of making use of skills and teaching methods that would make students learn without strain or stress,” she said.

Citing the role mathematics play in the technological advancement of a country, which is tied to Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), the vice principal also stated, “Mathematics teachers should be well paid to encourage them give their best. In employing teachers, their qualifications should also be looked at keenly, they must be educationists, and the right teacher should be placed for the right subject. Teachers should at all times wear friendly faces while teaching. They should endeavour to enlighten the students on new mathematics concepts and make them master these concepts…”

For the Principal, New-word Academy, Lagos, Mr. Eguase Osas, the problem with mathematics and science is that, “We have teachers who do not know how to relate abstract to reality of life because they were trained that way. Teachers should be able to link the quantitative part of mathematics to the realities of life.”

According to Osas, to encourage students to excel in mathematics, teachers should be well trained. A well-trained teacher should be able to bridge the gap in the teaching process.  Good books should be provided for the teachers; enough teaching aids should be provided, especially in government-owned schools because most government-owned schools do not have good teaching aids and good audio-visuals should be provided for teachers.

“The students themselves should be serious on their part. The hatred for mathematics could be the reason why students perform poorly during external examinations. But it is important for students to first of all, like the teacher before they begin to assimilate what the teacher has to offer. Teachers on their part should, at all times start topics with simple examples, raise it up step-by-step until it gets to the complex ones. The teachers should constantly research new methods of teaching.”

From the prism of a mathematics teacher, Mr. Seweje Sunday, for the teaching of mathematics to sound less abstract, make more meanings and for the message to percolate properly, pedagogical materials such as mathematical sets, globes, charts, and shapes should be made available to the students to enable them do more of practical’s during the teaching process.

“Mathematics is a subject that cannot be learnt through vagueness of thought. It therefore means that the students also need support either from their parents at home, or other better-informed students in the school. This helps to train and discipline their minds,” he added.

Seweje, who is of the view that a lot of difference in teaching and learning of mathematics can, however, be made by the teacher, added that, “A committed mathematics teacher should be able to bring about a turnaround in the poor performance of students in mathematics in his school. Often, students claim they lost interest in mathematics due to the teacher that took them on the subject at one point or the other. So, a dedicated teacher should be able to lift his students to the level they would begin to appreciate the subject, its aesthetics and its application. Once this happens, their attitude towards the subject would begin to change and their performance would consequently improve.

For Head of Department of Visual Art, Cross River University of Technology, (CRUTECH) Cross River State, Prof. Ajibade Babson, the importance of STEM in the development of any nation or economy cannot be over-empahasised because it helps to form the basis that technological advancement is hinged on.

Babson asserted that the hatred for mathematics for an individual starts from the home, so, parents should ensure that their children spend less time on television and social media,” adding that “a good learning environment within the family, or within the school can help change students’ attitude towards mathematics, and can equally help them to overcome fear and lack of belief in their abilities.”