Sweaty palms. 
Memory loss. 
Shortness of breath.

These are just a
few of the feelings college students
around the country experience daily as they prepare to take mathematics exams.

These are the symptoms of mathematics anxiety, a leading cause of poor preparation for and performance in mathematics courses. The vicious cycle can lead to major changes, delayed graduation, accumulated debt and ultimately attrition. 

One way universities are helping students overcome this anxiety and improve their time to graduation is the way they offer developmental courses. For example, all of West Virginia’s four-year colleges and universities are in the process of transitioning their developmental mathematics and English curricula to for-credit courses. West Virginia University launched its own for-credit developmental mathematics course, Math 122 (Quantitative Skills and Reasoning), in fall 2015.

WVU alone enrolls approximately 650 developmental mathematics students each fall and another 450 each spring. Math 122 is a co-requisite effort to support STEM students as they build the skills needed for college-level algebra, trigonometry, calculus and beyond. By offering the course for credit, students can make progress toward their degrees while gaining a stronger foundation in their disciplines.  

What advice would you give to future math students?

Take the mentorship opportunity seriously. You have to get through MATH 122 before you can get to the higher levels of math. The main problem students face is procrastination. Don’t put your homework off week after week because you will have to kick it into full gear to even finish at all if you slacked off the whole semester.”
— Hannah Tate, sophomore history major from Nitro, W.Va., and MATH 122 mentor

“Keep an open mind. A lot of students come in to math having one set way to do certain problems. After coming to WVU and learning and seeing everyone’s teaching methods, I realized there are so many better ways to solve problems and different ways to critically think and break down problems.”
— Trey Childers, sophomore finance major from Bedford, Pa., and MATH 122 mentor

“Time m anagement was one of the biggest challenges I faced coming into college. College is different — it’s hard to plan out your day, especially with different tasks coming up each day. With math being a constant thing you have to do, you know you have to incorporate it at some point in your day; it’s just a matter of when. Take the time every day to work on your math — there is no other way. You have to take the time every day to study to reduce the anxiety. A lot of students just need the one-on-one help, so I recommend getting help either from a friend, a tutor or the Math Learning Center.”
— Madeline Farrior, freshman psychology student from Cary, N.C.

“I used to dread math, but now I like it. I probably would not have done well in (college algebra) if I hadn’t taken Math 122,” said Hannah Tate, a sophomore history major from Nitro, W.Va. “It helps you with the foundations so that when you get to more advanced math, you know exactly how to do the parts of the big problems.” 

An ongoing study by WVU mathematicians Eddie Fuller and Jessica Deshler found that above-average levels of anxiety, especially those associated with mathematics exams, cause a decrease in student success. 

The longitudinal study, funded by the National Science Foundation, follows students enrolled in Math 122 through 2017. The study has tracked student progress and STEM major departure rates since 2015 and compares those trends to students’ underlying psychological states. 

The study uses surveys to better understand students’ perspectives of mathematics and reactions toward enrolling in mathematics courses. The five surveys focus on anxiety, the “big five” personality factors (i.e., extraversion, agreeableness, openness, conscientiousness and neuroticism), career goals, their sense of belonging on campus and their identity as STEM students. 

So far, the study has found two types of anxiety. Some anxiety contributes to success, in that those feelings of anxiety motivated students to work harder and be more attentive in their courses. Other feelings of anxiety inhibit student success by diminishing their willingness to participate in mathematics courses. This feeling often leads to students not expecting to be successful in mathematics courses or to continue on in the mathematics sequence, in their major or even at WVU. 

“Nerves play a factor in how you perform, but it depends on the person,” said Trey Childers, a sophomore finance major from Bedford, Pa. “For me, I take more time on the exam when I get nervous. I always second-guess myself, but you are always taught not to second-guess. It helps me to step back, slow down, and think things through.” 

The survey responses indicate students need support that is instilled in course environments in a way that binds them to the course, such as someone who can check in with them periodically outside of class and beyond the typical reminders to attend class, complete homework and study for exams.

That is how the idea for a mathematics peer mentorship program developed.

In fall 2016, students who had successfully completed Math 122 and Math 126 (College Algebra) by earning an “A” or “B” in both courses were paired with students currently enrolled in Math 122. 

“Time management was one of the biggest challenges I faced coming into college. College is different. It’s hard to plan out your day, especially with different tasks coming up each day,” said Madeline Farrior, a freshman psychology major from Cary, N.C. “With math being a constant thing you have to do, you know you have to incorporate it at some point in your day; it’s just a matter of when. You have to work at it every day. I’m a big procrastinator, so having that extra time set aside just for the math mentorship changed the game for me.” 

The pairs met outside of class weekly using a curriculum developed by the peer mentors. Their discussions included academics, such as tutoring opportunities, study skills and library resources, as well as their overall transition to college. Non-academic resources included WELLWVU, Student Health, the MyStrength app, student organizations and activities and the Student Recreation Center, which introduced them to tools to help them navigate college and improve their overall health and well-being. By intertwining academics with life skills, they learned how the students’ transition to college and life experiences impacted their experience in the mathematics course. 

“If I had a question about anything, my mentor would tell me about what I needed to do. It was helpful having an upperclassman to show you around, show you a roadmap and give you advice,” said Farrior. “Because (Math 122) is self-paced, when you don’t know an answer or are stuck on one thing, you can’t move on. It was good having someone help me with all of the steps.” 

The mentorship program has successfully helped students overcome their anxiety relating to mathematics exams as well as encourage them to enroll in future mathematics courses. 

“After the course, I feel so much more relieved. I have a better understanding of math. I feel that I’ve learned a lot, more than I would have without a mentor,” Farrior said. “I know my grades wouldn’t have been as good (if I wasn’t part of the mentorship program). It also made me realize that if you put in the work instead of slacking off, you can learn and retain better.” 

Students who completed at least four individual mentoring sessions had a substantially higher exam completion rate — 70 percent of those students completed six or more exams throughout their time in Math 122. 

Students who completed at least four individual mentoring sessions were also more likely to enroll in Math126 in spring 2017, the next course in the mathematics sequence. Nearly 86 percent of these students are enrolled. However, nearly half of students who completed fewer than four mentoring sessions did not enroll in Math 126. All of the students who chose not to enroll at WVU for the spring semester attended three or fewer mentoring sessions. 

“We are excited to see some correlation between completion of the peer-mentoring program and persistence, both in future mathematics courses and in their University studies overall,” said Deshler, associate professor of mathematics. “We hope to use this information to reach students who might be at risk of not persisting to help them be more successful.” 

“We are excited to see some correlation between completion of the peer-mentoring program and persistence, both in future mathematics courses and in their University studies overall.”
- Jessica Deshler

The pilot program continued this spring with the same team of mentors. It served two sections of Math 122, quadrupling the students supported from 24 to 96. 

“I wish I could’ve been a part of a mentoring program while I was in Math 122. It keeps students on pace and gives them someone to come to when they are struggling. It’s always nice to have someone helping you stay on track and reminding you about deadlines,” said Childers, a peer mentor. “I graduated high school with only 90 students. Being in Math 122 my freshman year was definitely challenging at first because of that. I didn’t feel very confident coming in, knowing I was in a class with all of these students. The mentoring program helps students like me who come into college and are shy about different things.” 

Fuller and Deshler will also continue to measure longitudinal data, with plans to follow students at least two years after taking Math 122 to better understand their behaviors, including whether they changed their major, persisted through the mathematics curriculum, and their overall attrition at WVU.

“Our work shows that students at this level, even the ones interested in STEM careers, are concerned about their mathematics coursework. We want to help them focus their anxiety on constructive activities and convert those concerns to confidence in their ability to succeed,” said Fuller, professor and chair of the Department of Mathematics. “We want them to see mathematics as something they can master and will equip them to persist in their pursuit of their career goals. In this way, they can stay on track in their programs of study and become the scientists and engineers of tomorrow, whatever their backgrounds might be.”