Think You’re “Bad” at Math? Think Again
It’s really common for students to feel anxiety around math or to even feel that they’re flat out “bad” at the subject. In my experience, most of these students have much higher potential in math than they realize. Let’s bust some myths about learning math so you can move from anxiety to achievement.
Myth #1: Math is something you are either inherently good or bad at.
Society conditions many people to approach math with a fixed mindset, the idea that you are either good at it or bad at it and nothing you do can change that. However, mathematical ability is like any other skill. If you approach it with a growth mindset, you can improve!
This doesn’t mean that switching to a growth mindset will immediately make everything go smoothly. Many students have math anxiety to overcome and gaps in background knowledge to fill.
Think of math as a muscle that you haven’t been using. Trying to go from a sedentary lifestyle to immediately running a 5k on your first day exercising is a recipe for frustration and injury. A math tutor, much like a personal trainer, can help you build your skills in a systematic way that allows you to accomplish things you may never have previously thought possible.
Myth #2: When math gets hard it’s a sign you’re doing it “wrong.”
I’m not claiming that math is or would be easy for everyone every time they are learning a new concept if only they come with the right mindset. Some people may find learning some parts of math easy, but my claim is that math can be worth working at even when it is hard. Even advanced mathematicians run into challenges and that’s actually part of the point – getting better at math is partially about getting better at (and comfortable with) problem-solving.
When we train for a 5k, we’ll have days where our muscles hurt and the running is a challenge. That doesn’t mean we’re doing it wrong or that our efforts aren’t worthwhile.
As parents and educators it is important to find a balance when talking about math with our students. We want to acknowledge the challenge that the student is facing without giving the impression that math is inherently hard and not worth working at. Learning something new, learning to think in new ways, can be challenging! Learning to work through and overcome that challenge is itself a valuable skill.
In these conversations, we also want to be cognizant that the challenge is different for every student and those with learning differences, such as dyscalculia or dysgraphia, will have unique hurdles in their journey. The message should never be “just work harder.” It should be “what’s getting in your way and what skills can you build or tools can you use to support your success?”
Myth #3: Math is all boring memorization and following formulaic processes.
Memorization has a place in math. Algebra is much easier if you can see a number like 56 and quickly recognize its factors (8 times 7). There are also formulas that come up often enough that it is helpful to memorize them, and you might be able to pass an algebra class by memorizing specific processes.
However, as you or your student move farther in math, thinking of math as being all about memorization is limiting. Understanding where the rules, processes, and formulas come from helps when you are asked to apply or combine them in new ways to solve problems or model scenarios. It’s analogous to learning a foreign language. There’s definitely memorization involved as you learn the new vocabulary and grammar rules, but if you stick to formulaic sentences you are going to find it challenging to progress in the language.
As a side note, memorizing arithmetic facts doesn’t have to mean flashcards and timed drills. There are lots of games out there that give students the chance to practice solving arithmetic problems, and if you solve enough of them the memorization will start to happen naturally.
Myth #4: My phone has a calculator and I always have it with me, so there’s no practical need for me to learn math.
Your phone calculator (and various other apps) are absolutely great tools and I encourage using them. However, that doesn’t mean math skills are obsolete. Knowing what to type into your calculator and recognizing when to use a particular app are themselves math skills.
It is useful to be comfortable enough with numbers that you can tell something has gone wrong when you think you’ve asked an app to calculate a 15% tip on a $25 meal and it tells you $0.37 or $6.75.
The pythagorean theorem is useful in everything from designing knitting patterns to building construction projects to analyzing data in a neuroscience experiment. The logic and problem solving skills that math helps to develop are useful beyond answering questions in math or science class.
Acknowledging the progress of technology is important and our current school system doesn’t always do so, but be careful not to swing too far the other direction. Developing math skills will help you and/or your student use the technology more effectively.
Myth #5: Being good at math means being able to solve the questions as fast as possible.
Admittedly, sometimes getting a good grade in a particular math class or a good score on a particular test can rely on how quickly you can do the problems. However, if you or your student are contemplating whether they are “good enough” at math to try a more challenging course option or consider a math intensive career, how fast you are is not a large factor.
Succeeding at higher levels of math relies on persistence, creativity, and a willingness to engage with abstract ideas, not speed. Some students, particularly those with working memory challenges, may find it harder to learn their math facts and do well on timed tests. It’s important that these students don’t mistakenly believe that they can’t do well in higher math.