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Math Anxiety and the Millennial Marketing Student

Riley Dugan and Concha Allen

Most everyone who has taken a standardized test can recall having to answer a math question that went something like this: “Train A is leaving Pittsburgh at 5 a.m. traveling west at 45 miles per hour. Train B is leaving Denver at 7 a.m. traveling east at 55 miles per hour. At what time will the two trains meet in St. Louis?” 

The “train question” has become synonymous with the difficulty of mathematics. However, when people bring up the train question as an example of why they found math so difficult, the implied caveat is that this difficulty is associated with the general belief that finding the correct answer is an impossible mystery, solvable only by the gilded few who were born with a certain level of math genius. Yet the question’s ubiquity underscores an important counterpoint to this belief. That is, the very fact that it is a hallmark of high school standardized tests is meant to suggest that average math students who have completed algebra should be able to solve it. Students are equipped to answer the question but have the mistaken belief that it is outside the bounds of their mathematical abilities.

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One issue that many marketing professors face are students who have a fear of classes and assignments that are quantitative in nature. It is no secret to professors that marketing research, which generally relies on “number crunching” more than any other marketing course, is often the least popular in the curriculum among marketing students. Decades of research have shown that millions of adults suffer from math anxiety and avoidance, which blocks them from important career advancement opportunities. Yet while there is a correlation between math ability and math anxiety, the two can be entirely separate. Thus, it is possible to be capable in math but still fear it. Oftentimes, this is the realm where many of our marketing students reside. Researchers at Central Michigan University revealed that marketing students—and sales students, specifically—enjoy quantitative work less than other business students and feel that it is less important to their career development. Marketing students typically have the ability to do the math required of a business major (which often requires nothing more advanced than basic algebra) but don’t like it, and seemingly want to avoid it if they can. It’s up to marketing professors to help assuage these fears, but also train students for the level of data analysis required of marketing managers.

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Riley Dugan is an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Dayton. He is actively involved with the Fiore Talerico Center for Professional Selling at the University of Dayton. His research concerns personal selling, sales management, and issues in sales and marketing education.

Concha Allen is an associate professor at Central Michigan University and the founding faculty member of the CMU Professional Sales program.