Prof finds career path – and courage – after failing a math exam
By Jim Hynes
When Krista Muis failed her first exam as a Math undergrad at the University of Waterloo, she was in a state of disbelief. A math whiz back in high school, she was shocked to find herself too paralyzed with fear about the subject to go on studying it. Little did she know at the time that her own experience would lead her to research its causes and help others gripped by the same fears.
Muis soon switched her major to Psychology, but was left with the empty feeling that she had left something that she really loved behind. She eventually found redemption in the University of Victoria’s Math Psychology program.
“Along the way I had been a teaching assistant for statistics courses and one thing that had really fascinated me was the fact that students had all this anxiety about being in those math classes, and that fear of failing, which I had experienced too,” said Muis, an assistant professor in the Department of Educational and Counselling Psychology. “I became very passionate about how I could, as a teacher or TA, address those issues with students. Because it’s like this big wall, you can’t get over it or through it, then you’re stuck and you have to take a different path. So I wanted to pursue that.”
(SUBHEAD) Motivation and math
At Simon Fraser University, where she earned a PhD in 2004, Muis conducted her research on motivation in mathematics learning. Her dissertation looked at students’ epistemic beliefs (beliefs about knowledge and knowing) and how they influence learning.
Muis came to McGill from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas in 2007. Today she teaches an advanced multivariate statistics course, an introductory statistics class and a classroom processes course that focuses on motivation and epistemic beliefs.
“A lot of students end up not going into areas that they would have liked to, like engineering or the sciences, because they have these courses they must take and they don’t succeed the first time,” Muis said. “And then they end up thinking ‘I can’t do this’.”
That introductory statistics course is a prime example. For many students, it is the last class they take. A good number of them have put off taking it due to the anxiety they feel over succeeding in it. Muis’ students, however, have come to the right place.
“When I teach the stats class I ask the students, ‘how many of you are anxious about taking this class,’ and you’d be surprised at how many hands go up. But I tell them ‘My goal is to reduce your anxiety, and to focus on the concepts and to get you to understand, and to break that barrier.’ And a number of these students have that experience each year, where they do realize that they can succeed.”
(SUBHEAD) Practicing what she preaches
Muis’ own will to persevere was put to the test in June 2008 after she suffered Grade 3 strains of her quad muscles while playing softball, a painful injury that left her unable to move her legs. While recuperating, she herniated the L4 / L5 disk in her spine, which pinched the femoral nerve (responsible for leg movement) and literally left her paralysed for 14 scary hours.
Her road to recovery was a long one, filled with countless relapses. In January 2009, after making good progress, she ended up back in a wheelchair.
“I kept saying to myself, I teach motivation, I need to continue. I think of myself as a very motivated person,” Muis said. “But having been so active before the injury, it was a big struggle for me. At first I kept asking my physiotherapist when I would walk again, but then I realized that wasn’t realistic. So I set smaller goals that were easier to achieve, like moving my legs a few inches. Once I saw that progress, it was more motivating. I realized, I can do this.”
To view Krista Muis’ 2009 Mini-EdPsych lecture on motivation visit: http://podcasts.mcgill.ca/artsandhumanities/tag/krista-muis/
Sidebar: Think big in six little words:
Name: Krista Muis
Most rewarding part of the job: The experiences I have with students when I teach statistics. When I witness change in students’ beliefs about statistics, it’s exhilarating. I am particularly rewarded when students come to realize they can understand.
Six-word story: Paralysed. Found courage. Now climbing mountains.
Genesis of the story: I experienced failure in mathematics in my first undergraduate calculus midterm, a failure that “paralysed” me but led me to pursue the area of motivation for my PhD. But the most significant meaning for me has to do with an injury I sustained last year. I was in a wheelchair for several weeks, had four hours of physiotherapy every day, and had to learn how to walk all over again. Being motivated helped me recover and continue to pursue my life goals. I now swim twice a week and have started playing squash. I am literally climbing mountains one small step at a time.
To submit a six-word story, go to www.sixwords.mcgill.ca