A Cognitive Ethnography of Math Skill Atrophy and Anxiety

Posted on November 7, 2009 by


The De-Valuing of My Math Skill

So I used to be pretty good at math in high school.

Got an A in Freshman Algebra. Skeeted by with B+’s in Honors Geometry. Then I took Honors Algebra II…and was consistently scoring the lowest in class. Never felt like I belonged, like I was a pretender. To avoid further embarrassment, I sent myself down to regular Algebra II.

Never again was I the same.

My confidence in regular Algebra 2 was extremely high at first considering that I had learned what they learned and was breezing by what they were doing, but soon as I got acclimated, I trended downward with the rest of the class. To this day, occasionally, I will still have nightmares where I am in that regular Algebra 2 class in that classroom either chronically forgetting homework, not doing it, or failing some test.

Because of those experiences and because I felt perennially behind, I structured my academic experiences thereafter away from math.

Nowadays however, I wish there was some way where I could’ve re-engaged in math.

Not that I want to be a mathematician and/or that I regret anthropology in the least, but I feel like I’ve been missing something in my repetoire. Especially when I find myself drawn to stuff like ethnomathematics and the cognitive and computational properties of individuals.

So, what exactly is wrong with my math abilities?

As I commence studying for the GRE, here is what I feel at this very moment of powerlessness:

1)  Every single concept and exercise seems to be so disconnected.  Where I used to be pissed off at having placed “only” in precalculus out of high school, getting one question in percentages and ratios (at least in Barron’s edition) right seems like an accomplishment.

2)  What I seem to have trouble with are word problems, ironically enough.  Barron’s study guide seems overly thorough and has a lot of principles.  The trick is trying to understand some of the word problems and knowing which principle to apply.  For example, knowing exactly when to use certain specific formulas to word problems such as

percentage decrease/original amount


original amount (1-%)

3)  I’m experiencing shock every time I encounter a new question.

4)  I reach dead-ends until I look at the back of the book for answers.

5)  I skip around a lot.  Skip steps, skip to the answers in the back, when with a little patience, I feel like I could just answer the question correctly.   The remedy:  perhaps slow down, and ride and enjoy the math wave.

Perhaps I need a better sense of sequentiality than I currently employ.

Mathematics presents a different case because basic skills are dependent upon rigid sequential
mastery. It is difficult to advance independently in arithmetic because much guidance is required

6)  I want to get to a point where I enjoy the fluidity and can answer question by question

Possible Underlying Problems and Solutions

a). The worst possible scenario:  a diagnosis of dyscalculia.

From a thesis on dyscalculia.

… there are a great number of students who have serious difficulties in learning
, but find the rest of academic subjects easy. These students have high IQ’s, are
excellent readers and creative writers, and learn quickly.
They are frustrated by a paradoxical
condition. Superior performance is easily demonstrated in thinking, verbal, reading and writing
skills, and in every subject where these skills are the predominant modes of learning and



I don’t think I have dyscalculia, perhaps that the connection to my skills have been pruned off. I don’t know what my skill is, but I just know that my confidence is still a bit shaken and then tends to trickle down to my slowness in solving GRE-level, barely high school level math.

b)  I wonder why there almost always has to be this tension between excellent language arts skills and being able to do math.  Math is a language too!  By association, however, excellent language arts skills are correlated to “emotional” behaviors whereas math is correlated to “rational” behaviors.  I also wonder if this condition related to autistic human calculators and/or super-social Williams syndrome sufferers.

c)  Perhaps I’m too emotional.  I wonder if emotional coding that preserves my episodic memories gets in the way of carrying out principles and procedures.

Maybe emotion forces you to jump all over the place and out of sequence?

d). I feel like my former math abilities are hanging around somewhere, just that I do not have any access to them.  Like Marvin Minsky’s theory of mind says, when we activate concepts, we activate networks of concepts.

If I can make a metaphor of my current struggles in math with past struggles in re-learning other skills, it would be my re-discovered ability to bike  — starting off all awkward, very tentative, I almost crashed a few times, I would’ve been on the verge of quitting.  The first time I used my bike, it took almost 30 minutes to travel one mile, and I did it via sidewalk.

My bike also kept breaking down, my pants kept getting caught, I couldn’t keep up with anyone.  I also got paranoid over my tires, my brakes — it was overwhelming!

The turning point happened once I biked from Compton to LA accompanied by my partner and then 8 miles home by myself, in the dark at 5 am in the morning from the North Hollywood Bus Station to my house.

Now, I can ride from my house in the Valley to East Hollywood (about 20 miles) or Westwood (well, hopefully with gears on my bike, next time I try it) in about one hour and a half.  I can race the recreational bikers.

The thing is it never looked like I would have been able to ever do any of that from the initial problems.  And that was all within the span of one week, just 2 months ago.