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"I suck at math!" How to Change Your Attitude Toward Math

Updated on August 19, 2015
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TR Smith is a product designer and former teacher who uses math in her work every day.

Just because you're stuck on a problem doesn't mean you're bad at math. (Pixabay)
Just because you're stuck on a problem doesn't mean you're bad at math. (Pixabay)

Lack of mathematical confidence is a bigger problem than lack of mathematical skill. If you're one of those people who always say they suck at math, you can become less sucky just by changing your attitude. Mathematics isn't a set of complicated and arbitrary rules that you have to memorize, but instead a set of logical relationships between quantities and objects. And having faith that you're capable of working out these logical relationships is the first step in become a better problem solver. Here are a few tips to help you improve at math and problem solving, and develop more confidence in your intellectual abilities.

You're Not Bad at Math, But You Might Be Out of Practice

People often say they're bad at math only when they encounter a problem they can't figure out. But they forget all the times they were able to solve other kinds of math problems without help. Instead of telling yourself that you're bad at math and reinforcing your negative attitude, recognize that you simply just haven't practiced solving a certain type of problem enough, or maybe you haven't yet learned how to solve a particular kind of problem. Anyone can learn new techniques and get better through practice.

Stop Stressing Out About Math

Lots of people feel stress when they encounter a math problem that might be difficult or take a while to solve. Perhaps this stems from taking timed exams in school, or feeling pressured to make good grades in math, or not wanting to be singled out as a "bad" student in math. It's important to realize that solving math problems in real is not a contest or a competition, and there are no spectators waiting to see if you make a mistake. it's just a means to an end.

When you want a clean bowl but all your bowls are dirty and piled up in the sink, do you get panicky about washing one? Are you in competition with anyone to wash a bowl? Of course not. Solving a math problem is no different, you are just trying to find a numerical answer to a problem. Think of it like any other boring household chore; nobody is watching you and judging you on your performance. If you do it wrong the first time, so what? Just start over and try it again.

Brainstorm Different Methods of Solution Beforehand

Most math problems can be solved more than one way, and some methods of solution are easier than others. Before trying to work out the solution, spend some time to think about different ways you can solve the problem. You might discover an easier solution than your first plan of attack.

For example, suppose you want to find the volume of a large hemispherical planter bowl in cubic feet. One way to find its volume is to measure its diameter and plug that number into a geometry formula for the volume. Another method is to record how many gallons of water it takes to fill the bowl, and then convert the gallons to cubic feet. You could also weight the bowl empty, weight it filled with water, and then using the density of water to figure out the volume of the difference in weight.

And yet another method is to look on the bottom of the bowl to see if the manufacturer printed the capacity. Some problems don't require any math!

Get the Right Tools for the Job

On TV, characters always work out math problems in their heads using guestimated measurements, and magically they always get the right answer. People tend to say "I suck at math!" if they can't do math like in the movies. What you forget is that behind the scenes a scriptwriter got a tape measure and calculator and worked out the problem the long way, unglamorously, and then wrote the answer in the script without "showing work." In real life people use rulers and calculators, so don't feel inadequate if you can't do an entire problem in your head.

How do you determine an object's volume from its measurements?
How do you determine an object's volume from its measurements?

Did you know?

The Piraha of the Brazilian Amazon are an isolated tribe whose language doesn't have any words for any numbers, but instead has two terms for "small quantity" and "large quantity." The language has many other unusual features.

Figure Out the Solution to a Simpler Problem First

Many math problems you encounter in real life are nothing more than harder versions of simpler, more familiar problems. If you can compare the current problem to an easier one you know how to solve, the solution to the simpler problem will give you insight into solving the harder problem.

For instance, suppose you need to figure out how many tulip bulbs you can plant in an area if you place the bulbs 9 inches apart in an equilateral triangular grid formation. See picture below.

An easier problem to solve is figuring the number of bulbs you can place on a square grid with bulbs planted 9 inches apart. Once you solve that problem, notice that a triangular lattice is slightly denser than a square lattice, so you will be able to plant more in an equilateral triangular formation.

Sometimes the only way to learn is to ignore your teacher.
Sometimes the only way to learn is to ignore your teacher.

Forget Your Mean Math Teachers from the Past

Everybody has had a few teachers who are terrible at teaching, or just plain mean and discouraging. I had a French teacher from hell who made me scared to open my copy of "L'exil et le royaume" for years. Then I restudied French on my own and discovered it was much more enjoyable when I wasn't being yelled out by an angry anorexic lady!

The same may be true for you and your study of mathematics. Just because you had one awful math teacher doesn't mean you can't do math! It just means some people shouldn't be teachers. It's important to remember that things said by rude, mean, and discouraging teachers are not a reflection on your abilities, but a reflection on their own bad personality.

Forget Racial, Ethnic, and Gender Stereotypes About Who Is Good at Math and Who Isn't

We've all heard the stereotypes "boys are good at math," "girls are good at English," "black people are good at sports," and "Asians are good at math." Why do we give these blatantly false generalizations any heed? In your own life you can find dozens of counterexamples that disprove the notion that any gender or ethnicity has a monopoly on mathematical ability. There are people of all races and genders who are good at math, just as there are people of all races and genders who struggle at it. How well you can solve math problems has nothing to do with your genetic make up.

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Practice Solving Math Problems!

Being good at mathematical problem solving is like any other skill, the more you practice, the easier it becomes, and the less frequently you practice the more you'll struggle to get the hang of things. Puzzles, brain teasers, and online brain training games will help you hone critical thinking and creative problems solving skills. And since many math problems have the same structure, if you master one example, you can solve all similar problems.


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    • DrBillSmithWriter profile image

      William Leverne Smith 2 years ago from Hollister, MO

      Very useful information. Thanks for sharing!! ;-)

    • Asher Dan Gueco profile image

      Asher Dan Gueco 23 months ago

      Thanks for Sharing! Interesting! :)

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