By Steven Krolak
(NEW ALBANY, Ind.)—Racing heart, clammy hands, light-headedness, upset stomach.
No, this isn’t a “Twilight” marathon.
These are all symptoms of numerophobia, also known as math anxiety.
The trait is experienced by people all over the world. In one key 2012 study of 15- to 16-year-old students in 34 countries, nearly 60 percent reported worrying about the difficulty of math class, while 33 percent admitted being tense when completing math homework. A 2018 study revealed some level of math anxiety in 93 percent of all U.S. adults.
Math anxiety can be paralyzing for students who suffer from it, with repercussions ranging from poor academic performance to career or job choices that prevent a person from reaching her or his full potential in life.
Thankfully students at IU Southeast have Mildred Vernia, a senior lecturer in math who has used classroom innovation a tool in the battle against numerophobia, unlocking the potential of math to change lives for the better.
A natural teacher
In some 30 years of teaching at IU Southeast, Vernia has taught 17 different courses, ranging from college algebra and freshman seminar to a brief survey of calculus and quantitative techniques. She has taught “applied” math courses tailored to business, education and health information management students, and she has even taught IU Southeast courses at the Jeffersonville office of the U.S. Census Bureau.
But her experience goes back further than her tenure at IU Southeast. Much further.
Vernia recalls helping other students with math in the sixth grade, much to the astonishment of her mother, who taught German at Central High School in Louisville.
“My mother worked very hard to prepare for her classes,” Vernia said. “She admired my ability to explain mathematics to my peers, and commented that I was a natural at teaching.”
That spirit of helping, in a natural collegial way, continues to inform her approach to teaching.
“I believe that I have a great amount of empathy for students, because I am a forever student myself,” Vernia said. “I am taking music classes now and learning to play clarinet and piano—so I know how they feel when they have to take a test or write a paper.”
Empathy, versatility, flexibility—these are the words that Vernia feels best describe her.
But they describe her presence, not necessarily her full impact.
Harnessing the power of M&Ms
Innovation resides deep within the DNA of Vernia’s approach to teaching.
A passionate practitioner of active learning, Vernia makes liberal use of daily quizzes and pair-and-share activities to drive both comprehension and application. She regularly breaks the lecture to divide students into pairs, who then discuss the lecture material and collaboratively solve problems as Vernia circulates to lend guidance or answer questions.
If exams reveal persistent problems with concepts, she devises experiments to make the material relatable and even fun. Hence the use of a bouncing ball to clarify linear equations and M&M’s to illustrate the central limit theorem.
Vernia has been a very strong and enthusiastic participant in the IU Southeast supplemental instruction program, in which more advanced students are tapped to guide other students in structured sessions that parallel coursework. Vernia has trained a dozen “SI’s” in calculus, statistics and business algebra, constantly revisiting and updating the materials she has prepared over 20 years of teaching. The recipients of supplemental instruction hear the same material as Vernia has presented in class, but from a different angle and in a different voice, and that can make a difference.
For Vernia, this is not simply tutoring, but an adjunct to active learning in which the supplemental instructors are also learning through teaching.
“For the student instructor, there are also great benefits,” Vernia said. “They solidify their understanding of the material, learn leadership skills, and gain confidence.”
Another tool she has employed with characteristic zeal is Canvas. For many colleagues and students, Canvas is a passive repository of administrative information. But Vernia has learned to use it more actively. During the pandemic, compelled to teach completely online, she sought out Canvas-savvy colleagues such as Dr. Doug Barney, professor of accounting, and ILTE to develop ways to use the platform to administer quizzes, project video lectures, close-caption videos, conduct discussions and more.
Math for all
So what about math anxiety?
It turns out that Vernia has also battled it, and won.
“Math anxiety made me a better teacher,” Vernia said. “The techniques that I used to battle my anxiety are techniques that I still teach students today.”
She also credits her sons, who succeed despite autism and dyslexia, with challenging her teaching ability.
“They taught me that everybody can learn, but people learn differently,” Vernia said. “You just have to find how to get things stored in their minds and how to retrieve that information.”
Vernia has taught students who were blind, mute, dyslexic, and autistic, as well as students who suffered with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), attention deficit disorder (ADD) and more.
In each case, she found ways to connect and make learning happen, often bolstered by what she learned at conferences.
“The most delightful times for me are when I get the accommodation just right, figure out how they need to learn and take tests, so that they can be successful in my class,” Vernia said.
Vernia’s method is built to overcome fear of math by demonstrating the ubiquity of mathematical concepts and constructs in our daily lives. Math is reality, and vice versa.
Active learning also helps students overcome their anti-math biases by making them participants in activities involving theorems, formulas and equations that they would otherwise be prone to avoid. She also attacks that avoidance and its unholy twin—procrastination—by requiring that missed quizzes be completed, and giving feedback even when the quiz receives no grade. These are all ways to make math inescapable. And that’s important.
One of the documented consequences of math anxiety is that students will choose courses, majors, even careers in order to avoid having to deal with math. Research has established this as one reason fewer women pursue careers in science and engineering, distorting the workforce and reinforcing inequities based on gender, ethnicity and family tradition.
At the request of Dr. Donna Dahlgren, then dean of student success and professor of psychology, Vernia developed “Math Anxiety,” a course to be taught in connection with a freshman seminar.
While the course is not currently offered, it’s emblematic of Vernia’s commitment to delivering math as an essential life skill for all.
This attitude informs other curriculum development initiatives, including a course in business math and one in quantitative techniques, a non-algebra-based general education option for students seeking an Arts and Letters degree, focused on statistical skills that they will use in everyday life.
Rocket fuel for success
It comes as no surprise that Vernia is bombarded with expressions of gratitude from former students via email and social media. She appreciates the gesture, but quickly returns to figuring out how to leverage data to make her courses more effective.
She scrupulously measures her DWF (drop, withdraw, fail) rate, comparing current numbers with those from past semesters, and with campus averages. She also uses pre-post assessments to identify which concepts her students are struggling with. Those insights become fodder for active-learning experiments and alternative ways of presenting material as she looks for ways to teach, motivate, encourage.
Vernia knows it’s not reasonable to expect perfection, but she’ll do everything she can to maximize her impact.
“I realize that some students, no matter what I do, will not pass the class,” Vernia said. “Life might get in the way of 20 or 25 percent of them, but my job is to keep those numbers from going higher.”
When it comes to measuring the success of her methods, Vernia is straightforward, referencing courses she helped to develop for the School of Business and for the new Health Information Management degree.
“For me, success is measured by seeing the program graduate students into lucrative careers,” Vernia said.
Under Vernia’s influence, math has become, for many students, a rocket fuel instead of a drag-chute.
Her evaluations bear this out.
“My learning excelled in [Ms. Vernia’s] classroom and directly translated into successful applications at work,” one student said. “I found new ways to incorporate statistics in weekly presentations to managers and have since assisted in several other departmental tasks that have increased efficiency in the organization.”
But Vernia’s impact transcends career readiness. Her work has literally changed lives. Work is part of that, but it is only the application of an inner attitude that she has helped to make possible—since she was in the sixth grade.
“Ms. Vernia’s connection helps students overcome the common expression, ‘I am bad at math,’” another student said. “She presents the material in an attainable, scaffolding manner that helps change the common mindset and builds student confidence.”