Why You Suck at Math (And How to Get Better)Oliver LillardHow I saw my SAT Math score go from a 610 to a 780, and went from hating math to graduating a math major at Yale University.
Is math ability simply a completely innate skill that most people do not have?
From my experience as a math tutor for several years at Yale, and as someone who did not excel in math until late high school, I argue that the answer to the above question is no. I saw students I helped go from barely passing their first calculus midterm to setting the curve on the final. All it took was a change in mindset. My approach to helping my peers get past their perception of not being good at math, and start actually enjoying and conquering their classes, was based on a variety of studies and books that I myself read in high school to turn my math abilities around. There are definitely innate elements involved in math as well, but from my experience almost no one is actually performing at their potential. I will lay out what I used to tell those I tutored in this article, and I can guarantee that you will see your math abilities improve by taking the recommended steps. There were two main problems that the students I used to work with faced: mathematical anxiety, and a belief that math ability was purely innate. These selfreinforcing problems are in your head, and block you from comprehending math no matter how hard you try.
Problem 1: Mathematical Anxiety
Math anxiety is just what it sounds like: stress and anxiety over math, and it has been shown to prohibit problem solving and number manipulation. It is a complex issue that has been studied extensively in cognitive psychology, and one that frequently plagued students I tutored. It made homework take longer, and made students choke on exam day despite studying hard. Working on this problem had huge benefits for everyone I worked with. Psychologist Mark Ashcroft has found in his research that “individuals with high math anxiety demonstrated smaller working memory spans, especially when assessed with a computationbased span task.” Working memory is what you use to hold numbers and ideas in your head to problem solve, so clearly a decreased span will hurt you. This finding articulates what many students commonly experience. For example, when you start getting the feeling that you will not be able to answer a question on an exam or in your homework, and the more you feel like this the less clearly you think. Another example: you study hard for a test and know everything going in, but you are nervous. When you sit down, problems you could do just last night no longer click, and you do not do nearly as well as you could have. These experiences are common, but they do not reflect poor innate math ability or a lack of hard work. They are a consequence of your psychological state, and with work you can change your perspectives of math to get rid of them. This alone will unlock potential in math you never knew you had.
After my first go at the SAT, and before my second, I read a book on math anxiety my teacher recommended. I saw my SAT math section score go from a 610 to a 780. I also began to actually find math classes fun, and saw my performance increase greatly. This book was called Overcoming Math Anxiety, and I have recommended it to all that I tutored who seemed to struggle with math anxiety. Almost everyone felt that this book helped to put into perspective what was wrong with their approach to math, and gave them effective advice on changing. Helping you to overcome the mental block of mathematical anxiety is not something I can do in just one article. But just spending a little time reading through this book and implementing its suggestions will work wonders in improving your math abilities if mathematical anxiety sounds like something you can relate to.
Problem 2: Belief in Math Ability Being Purely Innate
At one point during my time as a student and a tutor at Yale, I read a book called The Art of Learning. In the book, chess master Josh Waitzkin discusses a psychological study on math ability. A group of young students was interviewed to determine whether they felt their math ability was innate, or a result of how hard they studied and tried. After this had been determined, the students were grouped by their views on this topic and given a series of math problem sets. The first was very easy, and kids in both groups blazed through it. The second, however, was exceptionally difficult. The students in both groups were unable to answer any, but the children who viewed math as a learned skill spent much longer before giving up. The interesting part of the study came on the third and final problem set. This set was as easy as the first. However, the group of kids who viewed math ability as innate were no longer able to answer the easy questions. The other group finished them just as easily as the first. The kids who viewed math ability as innate had their selfperception shattered by the hard questions; after not being able to answer these questions, they now considered themselves the kind of person who is simply “bad at math.” This prevented them from being able to answer questions they could before. It is in your advantage to view intelligence as something not innate; it will make you better at math. In studies, children who view intelligence as innate were less motivated to try hard math problems, and less able to solve easy problems after becoming discouraged by harder problems, than children who viewed intelligence as attainable.
This study opened my eyes to something that many of the people I was helping were having trouble with. Math is very often viewed as an innate ability, and most of the students seemed to have this perspective when I asked. Having this view of math was very harmful to them because, like the children in the study, they would reach chapters in their textbooks or specific topics in their homework that were difficult to grasp at first. They are difficult for everyone, but when you view math as an innate skill, running into this obstacle will leave you thinking you are just not smart enough for this part of math. And from there, you have blocked yourself from learning this and future topics in math.
For the students who had this problem of viewing math ability in the wrong way, I suggested that they write down on a piece of paper several times before starting math homework the line, “Math is something that is learned through practice and hard work, and people’s problems in the subject largely come from removable psychological blocks.” This practice may sound silly, but if you tell yourself something enough times you will start to believe it. Though the book is not math specific, I also recommended that they read the book mentioned earlier, The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance by chess and Tai Chi world champion Josh Waitzkin, as it has some brilliant insights into how the author approached learning to become as successful as he did.
By tackling my psychological problems in math I have been able to realize new potential I never knew I had in the subject. Applying the things I learned to tutoring in college, I felt that I was able to help a lot of bright students whose abilities were hidden behind their psychological blocks. It is my hope that by sharing an overview of the advice and guidance I gave them, many more students and adults will be able to get rid of their image of themselves as bad at math. Whether it helps you discover the beauty of mathematics, or just helps you pass your calculus class, I will be happy if the article makes math no longer miserable for just a few people.

Other Articles For You
