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Learning Math: Why is it difficult and how can I learn?

It’s no secret that many students try and avoid math at all costs. In fact, almost 40% of U.S. students aged 13-17 rank math as the hardest subject overall. Students who do well in every other subject fear math, and this fear can even carry into adulthood. This difficult relationship with math isn’t present in students in other countries, which begs the question: “Why is learning math so difficult for so many students?”

In this post, you’ll get:

  • potential reasons why a student is struggling in math class
  • whether current methods of teaching math cut it, or whether you need something else entirely
  • different ways of learning math that may be more suited to you

Why is learning math so difficult?

Before building a better relationship with math, you need to know why you struggle so much with it.

Here are some common problems students run into when it comes to math:

1. Math-Based Anxiety

One of the best things about reading, writing – most humanities classes, really – is that the subjects and questions asked in them are more open-ended. It’s not that there are “no wrong answers”, but there are definitely more ways to get to the right answer.

However, with pretty much all math classes, there is only one right answer and certain expectations on how to approach problems. This makes math much more stressful for individuals who think in different ways, and who have trouble following an exact process.

Eventually, students get so caught up in the idea that they “can’t do math” that they avoid it as much as possible, building up math-based anxiety. Math anxiety is hard to overcome – especially in high school and college.

2. A "One-Size-Fits-All" Approach to Teaching Math

Generally speaking, classrooms in the United States cater to neurotypical students who flourish in group settings. In part, this is due to both reduced funding in public education (which causes a decrease in teachers and increase in class size) as well as ableism in schools.

There are several types of students who get left behind in this teaching approach, such as those who:

  • struggle to take in information in the classroom
  • have a hard time physically getting to class (whether that’s due to physical or mental illness)
  • are too nervous to ask for help
  • cannot focus for long stretches of time
  • suffer from test anxiety

Related: This is how to study effectively with ADHD.

3. Math builds upon itself. Miss one concept, and you could struggle for the rest of the year.

While reading and writing skills are related, you will not necessarily fail your English courses if you do not have perfect grammar and spelling.

But math concepts build upon each other. Concepts that are taught at length in algebra come back in higher level math courses. Not only that, they are expected to be used in math problems in higher level classes, and even in other classes (read: physics.)

A geometry test question asking you to find the unknown angle of a triangle (which requires core knowledge gained in geometry class) still requires algebra skills to arrive at the right answer.

So, if you don’t understand core functions in your current classes, you will suffer later on. And as you continue falling behind, math anxiety worsens. The effort you put towards math decreases. Scores on your math tests, and on math sections of standardized tests, suffer.

Related: These are ACT math tips for students who sat in the back of algebra class.

4. Perfectionism

Perfectionism has the potential to ruin any subject for a student. It is a personality trait that makes it very hard for a student to accept their mistakes and grow from them.

Rather, perfectionist students are distressed when they do not arrive at the perfect answer, or when they cannot finish math tests. These types of students may shut down in class, and even avoid taking math classes.

What are some strategies to make learning math easier?

You may not be able to overhaul the entire educational system. But there are things that you (and your teachers) can do to make learning math easier and more productive.

1. If you can't understand a concept the way it's presented to you, approach it in a different way.

Students can learn math in several different ways, not by just copying what’s on the board and replicating it on homework and exams.

Generally, we think of learning in terms of visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learning – and you can see how these learning styles translate to mathematics. There are actually several types of intelligences, though, and different ways of accommodating your specific types of intelligences.

You might benefit more from someone explaining it to you, or from individual exploration. It may help you comprehend a concept fully if you teach it to someone else. It’s important to find the approach that works for you.

2. Learn to regulate your emotions, especially when it comes to math homework.

A lot of learning math is about mindset: if you struggle to bring yourself to a calm enough state to think critically about your work, you won’t be able to fully understand.

This is where emotion regulation skills come in, including self-soothing techniques, using coping skills in the classroom, and knowing when to take a step back and recollect yourself.

3. Know that struggle is the best way to learn.

Have you ever noticed that, after struggling with a concept for a long time, you remember it really well?

That’s because your brain retains more information while you’re actively working with it. It’s formally known as productive struggle, and is proven to be one of the best ways to fully understand abstract concepts.

4. Strive for deeper understanding, not memorization.

Now, have you ever noticed that, when you just try to memorize problem-solving steps instead of the fundamentals behind a concept, you can’t do any other type of problem? For example, if you’re used to doing problems that give you the y-intercept of a linear equation, you may not know how to find the slope of an equation without being given that specific data point.

It’s worth it to take your time – once you completely understand the fundamental ideas behind a concept, you can do any kind of math problem that’s based on that concept. No matter the format of the problem, you can do all of them.

5. Do not "gloss over" any subjects, or move on when struggling.

Even if you’re struggling and the rest of the class is moving on, do not feel the need to skip over the things you still don’t understand. 

Instead, do the steps above. In addition, you can also:

6. Know that there's no such thing as "not being a math person."

Math is not something that some people are innately good at. All it requires is a growth mindset, which means that you believe you can improve in a subject with struggle and consistent effort. 

If you need some extra help with math, enroll in our online tutoring sessions

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