Overcoming the “I’m Bad at Math” Myth

findxI’m bad at math. I’m not a math person. I just don’t have the “math gene.” Long before Barbie complained that “math class is tough,” students have bought into the idea that they can’t do math.

A survey of Americans found that three in ten report that they are not good in math. Over half of those between the ages of 18 and 34 report that there have been many times that they’ve found themselves saying they can’t do math. You may have said that yourself, or you may have heard your child say it. However, the idea that there are “math people” or a “math gene” is simply not true.

As a parent, we would never allow our child to use “I’m bad at reading” as an reason to stop taking English classes, so why is it often okay or even normal for “I’m bad at math” to excuse stopping math classes? Why do so many people believe in a math “wall”—that you take math classes until you hit your personal wall and then can go no further?

How Did We Get Here?

Part of our problem is how we have taught math in the past, namely, that math is a set of methods to be memorized and steps to follow. Research using data from the 13 million students worldwide who took the PISA test showed that the lowest achieving students were those who used a memorization strategy. The highest achieving students were those who thought of math as a set of connected big ideas. That approach is one reason why teaching math is changing.

Another factor is that math, more than any other subject, is often presented as a matter of speed. Teachers call on the first student to raise their hand, math tests are timed, parents drill math facts with flash cards, and math apps race against the clock. As a result, students often believe that those who are fast at math are the ones who are good at math.

However, calculation is only a small part of math. Mathematicians often define math as the study of patterns, not a collection of calculations, procedures, and rules. Many mathematicians are quite slow thinkers when it comes to math because it allows them to think carefully and deeply about the subject.

As the famous mathematician Laurent Schwartz wrote in his autobiography, A Mathematician Grappling with His Century, he often felt “stupid” in his school days because his school valued fast thinking. “What is important is to deeply understand things and their relations to each other. This is where intelligence lies. The fact of being quick or slow isn’t really relevant.”

What the Research Shows

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, one of the biggest factors in improving students’ performance in math is their attitude towards it. Research shows that students who have a growth mindset achieve more than those with a fixed mindset. People with a growth mindset believe that the harder you work, the smarter you get. Those with a fixed mindset believe that you are either smart or you are not. In the US, research indicates that about half of us have a growth mindset and half have a fixed mindset; however, more people have a fixed mindset about math than any other subject.

In another study, psychologists studied two alternative views about people’s beliefs about intelligence:

  1. You have a certain amount of intelligence, and you really can’t do much to change it.
  2. You can always greatly change how intelligent you are.

They found that students who agreed with the second statement were more likely to get higher grades. They followed this with an intriguing study. They tried to convince a group of poor minority junior high students that intelligence can be changed and developed through hard work, that learning changes the brain by forming new connections, and that students are in charge of this process. A control group was taught how memory works. The results showed that convincing students they could make themselves smarter through hard work led them to work harder and get higher grades. The biggest effect was on students who started out believing that intelligence was genetic. The control group showed no improvement.

A third study followed 3,520 students from fifth grade through tenth grade. In addition to assessing their mathematical knowledge, researchers asked the students about their study habits and interest in math. In the early years, higher IQ generally meant a higher math score, but that basic intelligence only got students so far. By the later grades, how students studied had a big effect on how their math ability improved. Those students who simply relied on memorization when studying and didn’t attempt to make deeper connections with other areas of math didn’t show much improvement over time. In addition, those students who wanted to get better at math because they were interested in it showed more improvement than those who simply wanted to get good grades.

Finally, we know that it is important for students to make mistakes and to struggle with subjects. It is these mistakes and struggles that helps the brain to grow. However, research shows that students should not be struggling with the clock—math should not be associated with speed. Timed tests are a source of a lot of the math anxiety felt by students, especially by girls, and that anxiety in turn inhibits their ability to learn math. Mathematical facts are retained in the working-memory section of the brain, and when a person is under stress, the working memory is blocked. It is often these timed tests early in a child’s math career that turns them away from the subject.

Helping Your Child Move Beyond “I’m Bad at Math”

So what can families do to help their students move away from the idea that they are bad at math? Here are some suggestions:

  1. Encourage a growth mindset. Remind your child that it is okay to struggle with math, that learning takes time, and that hard work makes them smarter. Remember to praise the effort and doing your best rather than praising the outcome.
  2. For younger students, incorporate math skills throughout the day. GreatKids! has suggestions to teach preschoolers shapes and spatial skills.
  3. Rather than drill facts and memorization, practice skills that deepen mathematical thinking. This YouCubed article and its appendix includes several ideas and games for teachers and parents to help students use, work, and explore numbers, allowing students to learn their math facts while also understanding numbers and math.
  4. It’s not your job to teach your child math. Remember, how math is being taught is changing from how you probably learned it. The worksheets you filled out as a student may have had you doing many problems the same way over and over again to get you to memorize a process. Today’s math worksheets may only have a few problems and ask students to find multiple ways to solve each one. Math is no longer about just getting the answer, it is also about building a deeper understanding of numbers and concepts. If you don’t understand what your child is trying to do, ask them to teach you. If your student is still struggling, send a note in to the teacher pointing out where they are having problems or make an appointment to talk to the teacher about how to help your student.