“I can’t do math”

Posted on August 10, 2015

I was afraid of Math for a long time; I did not do well in it during high school at all. I put it off in college until the end in part because of this. As a result, I completed all of the Computer Science requirements, but needed to start from square one with college algebra to get to where I needed to be with math. It was miserable to be kicked all the way back like that when I needed to be in Calculus. This post is speaking as someone who had to start from square one with algebra.

I’ve heard it over and over, “Oh, Computer Science? I’d do that too, but I can’t do Math. I’m just incapable of it.” Unless you’ve been diagnosed with a learning disorder of some kind, that’s not true. Everyone can do math. Being able to succeed in math requires… are you ready for it… here’s the secret:

Study and practice.

It’s that simple, but doing it the right way is another story. You need to be prepared to put in the time and effort to actually follow through with studying and practicing or you just won’t get anywhere. “Studying” does not mean looking at the book cluelessly for hours while browsing facebook either. When you don’t understand something, sitting there staring at the book saying “oh god I can’t do this” will NOT help you. You need to utilize any resources you can. Free online resources like khan academy and patrick JMT, etc are amazing. And there is no shame in going to see a tutor if your college offers a tutoring center because you don’t understand something. They are there to help you and won’t belittle you if they’re good. When you’re done with the tutor, actually try some problems yourself. Ask for practice problems. There are some who can simply look at a few examples and they’re able to grasp it; but if you’re like me you learn by doing. Failing to practice over and over again will cause you to freeze when you see a problem of a certain type on an exam. Not actually studying is one of the biggest mistakes people make when taking a math class.

The second biggest mistake is attempting to memorize math verbatim. While math does involve memorization of formulas and identities, basic multiplication and division, which are extremely important, it is bad practice if you attempt memorize specific problems without understanding the methods behind them. Each problem type has a specific method or “algorithm” that you can apply to solve it. It’s more important to know and understand each step of that method and to know when and how to apply it rather than memorizing. Math is very different in this aspect because we are taught to memorize things verbatim for so many other classes, and it works great! But then we get to math and find that this method does not work. You will never learn or even pass if you just memorize Math problems and pray that only a few numbers were changed on the exam.

Another important thing to remember is that people learn at different paces. It’s easy to feel discouraged sitting in class when others around you are raising their hands asking questions, getting things clarified, and they say “Oh, I get it perfectly.” But you sit there thinking “What the hell? I have no idea what’s going on.” Don’t worry about it. Just take down all the notes, relax, and work it out after class. I can’t count the number of times a concept was introduced and I simply did not get it at first sight. This is OK, because I went home and figured it out through practice and self-study by looking at the examples provided and seeing if I could find a method in the madness. When I couldn’t, I just headed straight to the tutor or internet to figure it out. Everyone is different, and the way a professor communicates how a problem can be solved will greatly make a difference in understanding the first time. The point is, what clicks for you may not click for someone else, and you’ll need to make the extra effort to find what works for you if that’s the case.

But you can do it. Never say “you can’t”, because that’s a sure-fire way you never will.