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UNLV professor stresses rational numbers

Mark Ashcraft remembers the day everything changed for him. He was a young college professor grading papers.

In one class, 50 points was the total possible. If a kid missed 7, he got a 43. It took no time to figure that out. The answer was virtually instinctive.

But in another class, 75 points were possible. If a student missed 7, Ashcraft had to pause for just a second to come up with 68.

Ashcraft, a psychologist at UNLV who studies memory and the way it works, wondered about that. Why did it take him a split second longer to figure one answer than it did the other?

He has spent the past 30 years trying to figure it out.

He studies what is called “math anxiety,” that usually irrational fear many people suffer when they have to calculate a tip or figure out what their paycheck might be this week.

Numbers just freak some people out.

Ashcraft says there’s usually a way around it, and this week, he is helping dozens of incoming University of Nevada, Las Vegas freshmen do just that. Nearly 150 of them are taking a math boot camp at the university this summer to help them avoid taking remedial courses in the fall.

Ashcraft hopes to help them overcome their fears and just do the work.

“This is a national societal problem we’re dealing with,” said David Forgues, assistant dean of the Academic Success Center.

He said nearly a third of UNLV’s incoming freshmen don’t do well enough on standardized tests to get into a freshman math course, which is a requirement for all students.

They are forced to take a remedial course – sometimes two. They have to pay tuition for the courses, but the credits do not count toward graduation.

Those courses cost the university money, too. It would be better for every­one if those students could skip the remediation and get into a higher level class to start with.

So, for the first time, the university is partnering this year with a private company, Knewton, to run a five-week crash course over the summer. The aim is to get those students ready for college-level algebra.

Even if they’re not ready when the crash course is complete, the thinking is that they’ll at least do better in the remedial courses. Right now, 40 percent of the students in those courses fail them.

“Let’s try something different,” Forgues said.

Which is where Ashcraft comes in.

He came to UNLV seven years ago from an Ohio university to be chairman of the psychology department. He continued his research into memory and math.

He’ll work with the students in the summer tutoring program, not only trying to help them, but trying to help himself figure out if it is, indeed, math anxiety that’s hindering them.

Are the students who are most afraid the ones who are also most likely to drop out? If so, that will help him identify those students in next year’s class. Those students can be targeted ahead of time, and maybe they won’t drop out.

This was not how Ashcraft envisioned his career.

When he stumbled on the question while grading tests that day 30-plus years ago, he was more interested in memory than anything else.

With the math stuff, he thought he might do a study or two.

He recruited a student researcher. They looked into it. Not much had been written about how our brains retrieve information about how to solve math problems.

Soon, he recruited another student, one who was interested in clinical psychology. The student suggested studying math anxiety in particular. It could have some real world applications one day.

Lots of people suffer from that. They believe they’re not good at math, so they avoid it as much as they can.

It’s almost become acceptable to believe that some people just aren’t good at math. That they’re born that way.

That’s mostly bogus, Ashcraft says.

He thinks it’s an attitude sprung from a childhood experience, maybe a bad teacher, maybe a traumatic blunder at the blackboard in middle school, maybe from a comment that wasn’t meant to do harm, but did anyway.

Take this example. If you tell a group of girls that people believe girls aren’t good at math, that group of girls will do worse on math tests than girls in general will do.

If you tell them that the stereotype exists, but that it is incorrect, the drop in scores disappears.

This one’s even weirder: If you tell a group of Asian women that you want to figure out why Asians are so good at math, they will do wonderful on a math test.

If you tell that exact same group you want to know why men are better than women at math, they’ll do poorly.

Tell either of them that none of it’s true, and it neutralizes the effect.

In other words, you can reinforce a stereotype just by mentioning it, but you can defeat it by pointing out that it is not true.

The fear is self-imposed.

Our brains are weird that way. That’s what Ashcraft has figured out.

So that could be one way to deal with a problem like math anxiety: You must convince yourself that it’s all in your head.

Contact reporter Richard Lake at rlake@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0307.

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