Non-math folks think that those in the math biz never suffer from math anxiety. After all, since we’ve voluntarily decided to spend out lives studying the subject, we must love it unconditionally and have no fear, right? Wrong. I have a bachelor’s degree in math, am currently working a master’s, and hope to soon be working on a PhD, but one branch of mathematics has struck terror in my heart for nearly five years: differential equations.
The horror began in my first semester of college. I had taken Calc 1 during my senior year of high school and Calc 2 the summer before college. Calc 3 was the natural next course for me to take, but it happened to be offered at exactly the same day and time as a freshman seminar that I was required to take. Since this was a small school, there was only one section of Calc 3, and all sections of the seminar met at the same time, so I was in a bind. I needed another math class, so my adviser suggested Intro to Differential Equations, which he was teaching. The prerequisite was only Calc 2, but when I entered the class, I realized a lot more knowledge was expected. Without Calc 3 and–especially–Linear Algebra, I was lost. The material quickly surpassed my understanding, and I struggled to keep up. I barely passed with a C, and I was relieved just to have survived. Yet the experience was so traumatic that I changed advisers and never took my school’s second, more advanced course in differential equations. It was the only math class my college offered that I did not take.
Now fast forward nearly five years. This coming fall, I am taking a course in Fourier analysis, a subject that has significant overlap with “diffy” and requires some diffy knowledge. So reluctantly I pulled out my old diffy textbook, knowing I would need to finally get a handle on that subject if I hoped to have any success with Fourier. And what did I find as I began to do some problems? Not only did I finally understand the material, I actually enjoyed doing it. I am happy to say that I am finally beginning to banish the old diffy ghosts.
Having this experience gives me an understanding of and sympathy for math anxiety when I see it in my students. I hope I can now share my new success story as another tool to help my students overcome that anxiety, just as I finally have.