What if I find math hard?

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Many students really do struggle in math: I’m certainly not suggesting otherwise. Experiencing challenges is part of the learning process; but it’s also, frankly, part of the fun. By actively engaging with that process, you’re not just learning math; you’re also learning about yourself: about what keeps you attentive, about what models and methods “make sense” to you.

Find Your Style

Perhaps you discover that flash cards and rote memorization is your style; perhaps you find that you best attend to the visual, and that searching out diagrams or videos works wonders for your comprehension. Perhaps you learn that uninterrupted silence is your best study buddy; or you might find that engaging in conversation with peers or a tutor – with colored markers flying all over the dry-erase board – is what keeps you engaged. This is all to say that there are many roads to comprehension – and the one your friends and teachers tell you works for them might not be the one that works for you.

Identify Your Strengths

When I am working with a student, I try to pay attention to his or her natural strengths, as well as his or her bad habits. I’ve noticed that when working on geometry problems, some students are infinitely more comfortable working toward the solution when they have re-drawn the figure for themselves – taking control, as it were, of the shape before them, or tracing it in their brain as they trace it with their pencil. In approaching word problems, I’ve noticed that some students fare better when they cross out all extraneous facts and actually write out the facts that remain: the ones crucial to solving the problem. For these students, the white space of the page is important. When I work with students who do a lot of computations in their heads, I ask them to privilege an almost-painstaking patience over speed: writing out the formula first, as well as any calculations they would usually do in their heads. This patience and deliberation prepares them not only for all the math problems they will encounter in their lives, but for many other encounters besides.

A good teacher can help you recognize the best route to personal comprehension. Once you’ve discovered it, you get to try it out and refine it with every problem you encounter. You might find the model that works best for you for geometry problems is different from the one that works best for you for algebra problems. This is where you get to teach yourself to have patience (and a little fun!) in the difficulty. If you are good at geometry, but find algebra more challenging, dare yourself to spend time with algebra fundamentals, so you that you can learn more about both algebra and yourself. If you are good at manipulating numbers, but find word problems trip you up, make a date with yourself to work on the latter. It’s only natural to focus on areas that already make you feel good about yourself, and those areas are really important for your confidence: but let your confidence in one area support you when moving on to problems in the next.

Remember what you do well

If you find yourself discouraged along the way, well, congratulations; you’re human. Years of hearing that math is simply impossible for some people makes it easy to default to this way of thinking. But remember that positive thought-habits are as easy to create as negative thought-habits. You can re-habituate away from discouragement and toward expectation by keeping a secret weapon in your back pocket: something to remind you that improvement is possible with practice, determination, and patience.

Drilling as a practice technique

In sports, coaches often break down practices into drills so that their players can focus on developing specific skills. In swimming, you hold a kickboard in your hands and do a laps just to focus on what your feet should be doing when you swim. Then you use a pull-buoy between your legs in order to fully focus on your arm strokes. To develop strength in your arms and legs, you wear fins for added resistance.

Divide and Conquer

Learning to break down math skills into smaller components can, likewise, lead to great success. By isolating and practicing each component separately – negative numbers, factors, multiples, and fractions – you can build a foundation (a full swimmer’s body) to tackle problems (and pools!) that are made up of these elements. This breaking-down helps with everything I’ve mentioned above: it gives you confidence, it helps you find joy (or learn patience) in the small things, and it allows you to become good at mathematical areas one at a time, so that you can carry that certainty that progress is possible into the next area. And the “small problems” and the “big problems,” you’ll find eventually, are really not so very different after all.