“I suck at math.”
“Math just isn’t my thing.”
“I just can’t do math.”
So many people seem to think that being good at math is some sort of innate skill – you’ve got it or you don’t. We don’t usually think of other subjects this way – if someone says they’re just bad at reading, we worry and recommend phonics programs to help. So why don’t we have the same immediate response when someone says they’re just bad at math?
The idea that being good at math is just some natural trait is a myth, and a pretty dangerous one at that. After all, if you tell yourself that you just suck at math and can’t do better, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: You believe you won’t get better at math, so you won’t get better at math.
This idea that math skills are something you’re born with is a lot like the idea that intelligence is something you’re born with – which is also wrong. Sure, there is a genetic component to intelligence, but regardless of genetics, a student who works hard, who puts in the effort of studying and seeking help when needed, is almost always going to succeed.
It’s probably easiest to identify math as the impossible subject because of the way it builds on itself. All it takes is one bad year – one year where you don’t understand what on earth the teacher is trying to tell you – to make you fall behind. After all, if you don’t fully master arithmetic, pre-algebra seems impossible; if you don’t completely understand the basics of pre-algebra, you’ll only get about half of the concepts in algebra. The cycle continues until it can seem impossible to overcome – and suddenly, you’re just bad at math.
But you’re not!
The further behind you fall, the harder it is to come back – but getting better at math is only impossible if you believe it’s impossible. Here are some tips to help build those atrophied math skills:
Don’t just memorize formulae – make sure you understand them
A lot of students focus on memorizing a formula just so that they can get to the right answer. The problem is that this method doesn’t help you to figure out why the formula works so that you can apply the formula in different situations – which you’ll almost certainly have to do on tests like the SAT or ACT and in future higher level math classes.
If you can’t wrap your head around the why of a concept, don’t ever hesitate to ask for help! Your teachers are there to help you to not just get a good grade but to really understand math. If you think you need more extra help than your teacher can reasonably offer, ask a classmate who really seems to get the concept or seek help from a tutor.
Go back to basics
If you think that part of your trouble is with concepts from prior math classes, go back to basics! You can’t fix your current math problems without shoring up the gaps in knowledge that caused them to begin with.
Think of math like a log cabin. You build a sturdy and level foundation so that you can layer logs on top of it one by one. If the foundation or any future layer of logs is off, the entire cabin is going to be messed up.
Your math teacher should be your first resource because he or she will be able to help you pinpoint the concepts that might be causing your difficulties. Once you know where to start, there are tons of online resources like Khan Academy that offer a great place to start rebuilding that foundation. If self-study doesn’t seem to be helping, don’t get frustrated! You just haven’t found the right way for the concept to click. A great math tutor will help you figure out exactly how to make everything fall into place – they live for those “aha!” moments.
Don’t stop with the assigned problems
A lot of math teachers will assign specific sets of problems from your textbook for class or homework assignments. Don’t stop there – do additional practice problems. Only by practicing a given concept over and over will you truly master the how and why of it. If your teacher is overzealous and assigns everything from the book, seek out extra practice online or ask your teacher for extra practice problems from another source.
Take it in steps
Writing down every step of your problem solving is not some sort of easy way out. A lot students immediately try to solve a problem in their heads, somehow thinking that being able to do the mental math is better than having to actually write everything out. Not true! Writing out each step of your problem solving not only helps to ensure that you get to the right answer but also helps you to better understand the process of solving the problem.
Don’t get mad – get help!
The best way to stymie your efforts is to keep banging your head against a wall until you get so frustrated that you just give up. Don’t feel that you have to go it alone. If you need help, ask for it. Your teachers are there to help you, your school very likely provides extra resources after school, most libraries and schools offer peer tutoring programs, and organizations like C2 Education are always there to help!