Solving the “I’m not good at math” problem

academics math study skills

You’ve heard it before. Or you’ve said it. I’m not good at math.

I hear it from seventh graders struggling with fractions, high school students preparing to take the SAT, friends at a restaurant when splitting a check, and even from parents assuring me that their child’s own difficulties are in fact genetic.

And while I’ve heard it countless times, I’ve never actually met a student who was unable to improve their math skills. 

Sometime between learning to count and learning to multiply, students hear the myth about math. They are told it is the most difficult subject. They are told that some people possess a “math mind”. Some people are just naturally good at math; it comes to them immediately. If you are not one of these students, math is going to be an uphill battle for you. 

Then comes the confirmation bias. Fractions are hard to master, but for the students who believe they never will, fractions are impossible. They give up too easily and the cycle continues. By the time a student reaches high school, the elementary concepts have been treated with dread, disdain, and avoidance for so long that it feels impossible to recover.

When I first started meeting “I’m not good at math” students, they would often tell me I just didn’t get it. How could I? I actually teach the dreaded impossible-to-understand subject. How could I understand how hard it is? I spend every single day working on math. But that’s just it, I thought. I have tons of practice.

So I made it my personal mission to get better at this particular math problem. Like any math problem, it would take a lot of practice. It would take the type of confidence you can only build by learning to correct your own mistakes. It would take breaking the problem down into much smaller steps.

Step 1: Reframe the question

If you’re not good at math, what is it that you are good at?

Most students have a passion that they spend a lot of time on. The thing all gamers, athletes, musicians, dancers, and artists have in common is they are willing to devote a lot of time to their passion. The sonata requires tons of practice: start at half tempo, be patient and eventually you can master any great musical piece. Your coach will bench you if you miss practice: you can’t just walk on the field on game day and expect to play your best. Pointe makes your feet hurt: you need to want it to do it.

My students know that it takes time to master something; they just don’t want to think about that when the thing happens to be math. The realization that they do have that discipline and patience can work wonders on their resolve.

Step 2: Take it one step at a time

If you checked out of math class sometime in middle school, chances are you’re missing a few crucial skills. I find that students need to keep neater notes. If the problem is written clearly, it is easier to work through. Make a list of everything you know and solve only the next steps. For me, this often means reteaching a concept like factoring or absolute value. I remind students not to worry about getting the answer at the end, but the part of the answer they’re working on at the moment. I want my students getting As on their pre-calculus tests, but they need to master exponent rules before they can apply them. Jumping ahead never makes that easier. 

Step 3: Keep track of your negatives (and avoid other careless errors)

Negatives are tricky little things that can really get you down. And like most errors, they’re a result of carelessness. I’ve made my own careless errors, getting frustrated at a student for once again failing to slow down, be neat, pay attention. Dropping a negative loses you points, so I have to work to be encouraging and reward small wins. Students get enough negative reinforcement, and it’s rarely (if ever) effective.

I can’t be careless or make assumptions when I’m working with a student on math. I can’t simply assume they’ve mastered a concept until they can demonstrate it. And then demonstrate it again. And again. Repetition is the antidote for carelessness, and my students quickly learn that I practice what I preach.

I measure my personal success with students by their attitudes, not their grades. I teach them to say things like I find this challenging instead of I can’t do this. I ask them to show off their math skills. I celebrate laughter when it comes alongside sighs of relief. I firmly believe that a positive attitude for math is not the effect of success, but rather a contributing cause to success.  

Like any math problem, the “I’m not good at math” problem requires patience, planning, and perseverance. The best way to get started on this type of problem is to remind yourself it is, in fact, solvable.

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