Ask a student their least favorite subject, and you’ll often hear, “I hate math.” Ask them why, and they’ll say, “because I suck at math.” Really, their reasoning makes sense—how many things that you’re bad at are among your favorite activities? As it turns out, a distaste for mathematics is extremely common, and a lot of that can be attributed to the ways we teach and study math skills.
In this article, we’ll look at what’s behind the “I suck at math” mentality, debunk some common myths, and offer helpful tips on how to improve your math skills.
Debunking the “Bad at Math” Myth
There are lots of reasons to dislike something, but in the case of math, the biggest one is a perceived lack of natural skills. This is where a harmful myth often sneaks in. It’s a common belief that people are inherently good or bad at math. At best, this is a major over-exaggeration; at worst, it perpetuates harmful stereotypes and discourages children who struggle with math from trying to outgrow their “I suck at math” mentality.
Think about it: imagine you’re struggling to understand a mathematics concept. You ask your teacher or your parents for help, telling them that you’re struggling to understand. Trying to reassure you, they say, “It’s okay that you suck at math; some people are just born that way.”
Although they had good intentions, all they’ve really done is encourage a fatalistic outlook. Once this happens, you might even start to self-identify as someone who is “bad at math,” and stop trying to get better. From there, it’s a slippery slope towards believing that you’ve “always been bad” at learning math concepts (even if that’s not true), so that the story you tell about yourself better matches your “I suck at math” identity.
What Research Shows About the “I Suck at Math” Mentality
While it’s true that a small part of the brain is connected to a person’s ability to recognize and decipher numbers, a much more significant indicator of someone’s math skills is preparation. For example, in a study conducted by scientists in Germany, it was found that 80% of a child’s math proficiency was determined by their learning environment. Genetics accounted for the remaining 20%.
In the study, scientists measured the growth of gray matter in the brain of children between the ages of 3 and 6 years, then examined those students’ second-grade math test results. There was not a strong correlation between the students’ brain size and their results; however, the amount and types of exposure each child had to mathematics during that time went unchecked, leading scientists to believe that the children’s unique environment had a hand in their end results.
(The first experimental group included 77 children. A second experimental group, on which a replica study was conducted to check the results of the first, included 101 children.)
A separate study, conducted in 2017, did provide some evidence that intuitive number sense may run in families. Some scientists believe, however, that this can be attributed to how often a child is exposed to early math concepts before they reach school age.
For instance, a child whose parents explained how prices work when they took them to the grocery store, or had them try to count in different ways around the house would probably be more likely to excel in math later on than a child who wasn’t exposed to the same concepts. In that case, there is a family connection, but it’s not genetic, it’s environmental. Let’s put it this way: maybe not everyone has the capability win a Nobel Prize in Mathematics, but anyone who prepares properly can pass Calculus!
Is it Normal to Struggle With Math?
To put it in one word, yes. Even though most basic math could be learned by nearly anyone, finding difficulty in understanding math concepts is a common experience.
One of the worst things about the “I suck at math” mentality is that it’s extremely isolating. Students who struggle in math often feel as though they are the only ones who don’t understand. (The problem is compounded by the fact that most young people are afraid of “looking dumb” in front of their friends.)
But students who feel this way aren’t as alone as they think. It’s extremely common for upper elementary students to fall behind in math. In fact, 6 out of 10 students aren’t meeting the minimum proficiency standards for mathematics. That means that almost two-thirds of students are struggling with math concepts—no wonder so many students say “I hate math!”
Next, we’ll look at some common causes of these struggles.
The Actual Reasons Why You May Find It Hard to Shake an “I Suck at Math” Mentality
1. Different Learning Styles
If you’re a student and you feel like math is too difficult to understand, there’s a good chance the way it’s being taught to you isn’t properly syncing up with your learning style. Just as every student has an individual personality, so too do they have a distinct learning style.
If the way a teacher presents a concept doesn’t fit well with how a student’s brain deciphers things, that student is far less likely to get a grasp on the concept. They’re not dumb, and they don’t suck at math; they just need a different explanation.
Students who feel this way should make a point of (politely) reaching out to their teacher to discuss this; teachers usually have many ways to explain difficult concepts. Together, student and teacher can find an explanation which makes sense! Additionally, teachers may be able to recommend private tutoring for students to ensure that they are set up for success.
2. Lack of Foundational Knowledge
Starting in kindergarten, children learn basic mathematical skills: counting to 100, number and shape recognition, identifying patterns, and so on. They’re also often tasked with memorizing simple arithmetic facts, like “2+2=4”or “3×4=12.”
While these may seem mundane, they’re actually essential: having a strong foundational knowledge of math is vital for understanding more advanced math concepts. Math, like many disciplines, is cumulative: more advanced ideas build directly on simpler ones. If a student hasn’t adequately learned these basic skills, it would make sense that they struggle with more advanced concepts.
Okay, so we fibbed a little bit—some people really are naturally bad a math. Those people have a learning disability called dyscalculia. People with this disability have extreme difficulty learning basic math concepts, no matter what their ideal learning style. Maybe now you’re thinking, “Of course! I suck at math because I suffer from dyscalculia!” It’s possible, but not very likely: it’s estimated that only about 7% of elementary-aged students suffer from dyscalculia.
Although it’s sometimes referred to as “math dyslexia,” most professionals call it a “math learning disorder” because dyscalculia affects the brain in a different way than dyslexia does. (It may be linked to ADD or ADHD, too.)
If you genuinely suspect you may have dyscalculia, speak to a medical professional to see about being officially diagnosed and finding helpful accommodations.
4. Math Anxiety
Math anxiety refers to the feeling of fear or tension when it comes to learning different mathematical concepts. Students with math anxiety can trace their dislike of the subject directly to the fear and anxiety they feel when faced with mathematics concepts. This anxiety can prevent a child from properly grasping the concept in front of them and can even contribute to standardized testing anxiety. Students who suffer from math anxiety may feel hopeless or “stupid,” may be driven by a fear of failure, suffer from extreme stress, overall confusion, and may (in extreme cases) experience physical symptoms too.
For more information about math anxiety, check out our articles: What is Math Anxiety?
A note about Math vs. English Anxiety
Sometimes, students wonder, “Why am I so bad at math, but so good at English?” Although there aren’t as many studies examining anxiety in K-12 English Language Arts students, it’s far less common for students to experience ELA anxiety on par with math anxiety. One major exception is students who struggle with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), who may feel a sense of terror if called upon to read out loud.
The discrepancy between Math and English is likely due in part to the fact that most American students are passively exposed to the English language for the first five years of their lives. It’s easier to delve deeper into a language you’re familiar with than an entirely new concept you may not have seen before.
So, How Do You Get Better at Math?
Getting better at math takes practice and patience, and in the case of the latter, that has to come from parents and teachers as well. With that said, here are some helpful tips for improving math proficiency:
- Never miss an assignment. When teachers assign practice worksheets and other graded materials, it’s important to ensure it always gets done. These assignments are meant to help reinforce concepts learned in the classroom and are the best way to practice what you’ve learned.
- Find a study partner. Whether you do so with a friend or a trusted adult, having someone to study with can make math test prep more enjoyable. Having a partner in the same class as you is usually best, because you have back-up notes for the days you aren’t in school (and vice versa).
- Ask for help. If you’re in class and you don’t understand something, speak up. Chances are good that there’s someone else in class who has the same question but may be too afraid to ask. If you don’t feel comfortable doing that, or you still don’t understand something taught during class time, consult your teacher privately. They may have time to sit down with you and explain the concept more thoroughly, or they may refer you to a math tutor who can help.
- Exercise your foundational knowledge. When you have some down time, take 20 minutes to practice some more basic concepts. Doing this will help keep your brain fresh and it makes deciphering more complicated concepts much easier.
- Apply math to the real world. It’s easy to write off certain math concepts as being unrelated to real-world problems, but even the most obscure mathematical concept has a place in life. Did you know that functions and trigonometry are critical components in aerospace engineering? Or that group theory and algebra are behind the beauty of crystal symmetry?
Still Think “I Suck at Math?” Piqosity Can Help.
Nobody really “sucks” at math; after reading this guide, hopefully you’re ready to leave your “I hate math” mentality behind you. Maybe you can even encourage your peers who feel the same way! Rather than spending all of your time stressing out about falling behind, use your time to practice the concepts that don’t make sense to you.
If you or your student is struggling with math skills, Piqosity is here to help! Along with our SAT and ACT test prep courses, each packed with test-specific math practice, we also offer full-length online Math courses—each course includes dozens of concept lessons, personalized practice software, and practice tests with step-by-step answer explanations.
The best part? You can try out all of Piqosity’s features with our free community account, which features a free mini diagnostic exam to evaluate your current math skills. When you’re ready to upgrade, Piqosity’s year-long accounts start at only $89.