You Probably Don’t Suck At Math

8 Things You Didn’t Know Were Making Math Hard For You

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

What’s Up Nerds! I’m Liora and I am a math teacher. In my teaching I focus on helping students grapple with and overcome math anxiety. And if you’re thinking, “Hey – math anxiety? I have that!” Well you’re in good company because that is the response I get from almost everyone I talk to. Now, if you’re wondering, Liora, you have a mathematics degree, what makes you qualified to help people with math anxiety? It’s this: 1. I know a lot of math, and 2. I have a lot of anxiety!!!

And seriously now, if you’ve ever experienced anxiety in relation to learning math or doing math, you are not alone. This is such a common phenomenon there’s actually a wikipedia page about it. But there isn’t an English Lit Anxiety or Science Anxiety page. 

Now, hopefully I’ll get into why math in particular causes so many of us to be anxious in another video. For now, I’d like to unpack a list of some things which aren’t really about math at all, but remain so essential to the learning process that often, when we’re struggling with math, we’re actually struggling with one of these instead. Before I tell you what they are, I don’t want you to come away from this video thinking, wow, if I have to learn all this stuff for math – I’ll never be able to do it. On the contrary. If you find in this list something you’re good at – take heart! Because that means there is an area of mathematics where you can shine. Not just pass. Shine.

1. Self Esteem

I can hear you all the way across the internet saying, Hey, don’t call me out like that! But I’m not sorry because I have a degree in mathematics and I struggle with this one as well.

Learning math involves a lot of trial and error, and most of us get things wrong a lot of the time. We experience failure, disappointment, and shame around that failure and disappointment so many times along every single step of the way and no one ever tells us what to do with that. Add to this a truckload of social messages that tell us that we have to be a certain way to be good at math, and that we have to succeed in math in order to succeed at life, it’s easy to see how by 5th or 6th grade many of us have already formed an extremely negative opinion of ourselves as we relate to mathematics.

2. Fear of Making Mistakes

Speaking of failure… in school we are penalized for making mistakes, and failure is written in our record as something final and not something we can change. Remember I said trial and error? Mathematics relies on that so much that if we are afraid to try a new approach, we will not be able to eventually figure out a solution to a problem. After being punished for making mistakes, so many of us are afraid to try because we don’t want to be further penalized for more mistakes. But if mistakes were something we could learn to embrace, and feel safe to make, learning math would not be as scary.

3. Anxiety

Anxiety is our built-in protective mechanism against life-threatening situations. If we go into fight-or-flight mode, we get lots of adrenaline, and our lizard brain takes over, which is great for running from predators, but that guy can not do calculus to save his life. If we’re experiencing anxiety, all of our resources are being diverted towards survival which doesn’t leave room for the higher mind to come in and engage in abstract thinking.

Part of the reason math makes us so anxious is how much importance we assign to our achievements in math. We’re surrounded by messages, myths, from our society that tell us that if we don’t succeed in math that means we’re not intelligent, or that we won’t succeed in life. And of course the idea that is everywhere, that there are people who are wired for it, and people who just aren’t, which is completely false and just makes it more difficult for us to believe that math is something we are capable of doing and understanding, and even enjoying.

4. Memorization

So much of early math, and especially arithmetic, actually relies on memorization. So when you’re doing that addition, subtraction, multiplication, what you’re really doing is using your working memory to juggle bits and pieces of facts from your long term memory. And if your working memory is busy, this stuff is impossible to get right! So you might make calculative errors and end up thinking, “oh, well, I’m just not good at math,” when in fact, spending a little time memorizing your multiplication tables could make that a lot easier for you. 

5. Organization

Just a few weeks ago I was working with one of my students on this problem from his book, where they gave us three kids, so let’s say, Wendy, Michael, and John, and each kid made a shelf out of a wooden board 2 meters long. His task was to multiply fractions and figure out the final length of each kid’s shelf. Now, he knew what he was doing. He got the multiplication right, he had all the correct answers, but then when it came to writing them in the book, he had done three different multiplication exercises all on the same page and he didn’t know which was which. So he could have easily put in the wrong answers, even though all of his math was correct.

The skill he needed was organization, someone to teach him to write each kid’s name next to the relevant calculation, or do each one on a separate line.

Being able to organize your thoughts, calculations, and answers to a problem are essential to later producing the correct answer.

6. Frustration

So often when we’re learning math we try something and it doesn’t work, and we feel frustrated, and the tendency then is to say, oh, I’m frustrated, that means I can’t do it, or I’m not good at this. And the biggest difference between a math whiz and someone who thinks of themselves as “not a math person” isn’t a matter of wiring, or an inclination for analytical thinking, what it really boils down to is a tolerance for that intellectual frustration, which is an inseparable part of the mathematical learning process. But no one tells us that, no one says it’s okay to feel frustrated and that doesn’t mean we’re not good at it, and it doesn’t mean we won’t eventually succeed. Imagine what a difference it would make if instead of saying, I’m frustrated therefore I must not be good at this, we learned to say, I’m frustrated, so that must mean I’m doing it right.

7. Reading comprehension

In school, especially when it comes to homework or exams, we’ll often have a very wordy, information-packed problem we’re expected to solve. And it’s not always easy to understand exactly what you’re being asked to do. You might take the information and put it into some kind of equation and then solve it correctly, but the answer you got isn’t exactly the answer they were looking for. Maybe you found the price of eggs but they were asking for the price of eggs ten days earlier or something. And what will often happen is the teacher will just mark it with an X and move on, so you end up getting the message that you’re not good at math, when in fact your math was correct, and what you struggled with there was actually reading comprehension.

8. Time

When you’re in a class in a subject that you’re good at, you’re probably used to this instantaneous understanding of new material right as it is presented. And this is especially true for smart kids. But math isn’t like that. New concepts take time to sink in. So when you’re sitting in a math class, and you don’t immediately understand something, because of what you’re used to, it can be very daunting, and make you think, well, what’s going on? Why don’t I understand this right away? I must not be good at math. In reality it takes time, real time, for our brains to get used to a new mathematical idea. So it’s normal for it to take weeks, even months before you get that “lightbulb” moment. But again, no one tells us this, so often we just give up after the first hour or so and resolve ourselves to the idea that we just aren’t “wired that way.”

Things take time to sink in, which is why

Do not wait until the last minute to call up your local math tutor.

You can’t expect to learn something new a week before an exam and fully understand it well enough to ace the test. So, do yourself a favor, plan ahead. You can do this. I believe in you.

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