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Why Math Is Difficult


In 2005, Gallup conducted a poll that asked students to name the school subject that they considered to be the most difficult. Not surprisingly, mathematics came out on top of the difficulty chart. So what is it about math that makes it difficult? Have you ever wondered?

Dictionary.com defines the word difficult as “not easily or readily done; requiring much labor, skill, or planning to be performed successfully.”

This definition gets to the crux of the problem when it comes to math—specifically the statement that a difficult task is one that is not “readily” done. The thing that makes math difficult for many students is that it takes patience and persistence. For many students, math is not something that comes intuitively or automatically, with little effort. It is a subject that sometimes requires students to devote lots and lots of time and energy. This means, for many, the problem has little to do with brain power; it is mostly a matter of staying power.

And in this world of instant gratification, when we can quickly find answers to our deepest questions and solutions to our most vexing problems with a fast Google search, patience is a big problem.

Math and Brain Types

But there is also an element of brain power in the big picture, according to many scientists. There will always be opposing views on any topic, and the process of human learning is subject to debate, just like any other topic. But many theorists believe that some people are wired with better math skills than other students. According to some brain science scholars, logical, left-brain thinkers tend to have stronger math ability than artistic, intuitive, right-brainers. So left-brain dominant students may grasp concepts quickly while right-brain dominant students don’t.

But in a culture where students are already short on patients and persistence—extra time just isn’t going to happen. So we move on, ready or not.

Math as a Cumulative Discipline

Math know-how is cumulative, which means it works much like a stack of building blocks. You have to gain understanding in one area before you can effectively go on to “build upon” another area. Our first mathematical building blocks are established in primary school, when we learn rules for addition and multiplication, and those first concepts comprise our foundation.

The next building blocks come in middle school, when students first learn about formulas and operations. This information has to sink in and become “firm” before students can move on to enlarge this framework of knowledge.

The big problem starts to appear sometime between middle school and high school, because students very often move on to a new grade or new subject before they’re really ready. Students who earn a “C” in middle school have absorbed and understood about half of what they should, but they move on anyway. They move on or are moved on, because

  1. they think a C is good enough;
  2. parents don’t realize that moving on without a full understanding poses a big problem for high school and college;
  3. teachers don’t have time and energy enough to ensure that every single student understands every single concept.

So students move to the next level with a really shaky foundation. And the outcome of any shaky foundation is that there will be a serious limitation when it comes to building—and real potential for complete failure at some point.

Making Math Less Difficult

We have established a few things when it comes to math and difficulty:

  • Math seems difficult because it takes time and energy.
  • Many people aren’t patient enough to give math time and energy, and they become satisfied “just getting by.”
  • Many move on to study more complex concepts with a shaky foundation.
  • We often end up with a weak structure that is doomed to collapse at some point.

Although this may sound like bad news, it is really good news. The fix is pretty easy—if we’re patient enough!

No matter where you are in your math studies, you can excel if you backtrack far enough to reinforce your foundation. You must fill in the holes with a deep understanding of the basic concepts you encountered in middle school math.

  • If you’re in middle school right now, do not attempt to move on until you understand pre-algebra concepts fully. Get a tutor if necessary.
  • If you’re in high school and struggling with math, download a middle school math syllabus or hire a tutor. Make sure you understand every single concept and activity that is covered in middle grades.
  • If you’re in college, backtrack all the way to basic math and work forward. This won’t take as long as it sounds. You can work forward through years of math in a week or two.

No matter where you start and where you struggle, you must make sure you acknowledge any weak spots in your foundation and fill, fill, fill the holes with practice and understanding!

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