The secret to surviving math


Dan Elson

First-year graphic design student Mary Turner says though math is intimidating, most people are more capable than they realize.

Mary Turner, Graphic Designer

I love math. I used to do my math homework for fun. Earlier today I used trigonometry to calculate something I could have simply eyeballed. I am an anomaly.
For most people, mathematics is that hated and dreaded class they just need to pass for graduation. The way it is taught in schools makes the beauty and awe of math inaccessible and turns it into an obstacle. Even though I liked math in school, I didn’t uncover the true depth and joy of discovery in math until I broke out of the traditional education system.
They aren’t teaching us the fascinating or exciting parts of math. So, until there is a math class revolution, I have some pointers from my years as a math tutor.
It may seem surprising, but above all, my role has been to build people’s confidence. Giving detailed explanations of the nitty gritty aspects of math, while helpful, is not the most impactful thing I can do.
Most people doubt their ability to do math. This holds them back. I don’t know the psychology of it, but I see that as their belief in themselves grows, so does their ability to succeed.
This confidence grows as they see improvement in their grades, but it also grows when I show them that their wrong answer doesn’t always mean that they didn’t understand the concepts. Sometimes it’s a simple subtraction error.
It’s easier when you have me looking over your shoulder pointing out exactly where that error is, but you, too, can cut yourself some slack. Not every error means that you are destined to fail math. Mistakes compound in math, so a small one can seem astronomical by the end of a problem.
All this talk of confidence is not to undermine the importance of understanding the concepts. I have seen that being confident and comfortable certainly helps students engage with their work. Being engaged is essential to understanding new concepts no matter the subject.
I cannot give you precise explanations of what you are struggling with, but I encourage you to ask, “Why?” While you can pass your math classes by simply memorizing everything, it is a time-consuming, brute-force method.
By learning the “why” behind the concepts, you can approach problems as a puzzle to solve with the skills and patterns that you have learned. No more struggling to remember what can seem like arbitrary rules.
Math is a web that grows out of a set of assumptions, like a tree grows from a seed. As you begin to work within the logic of the web, each step becomes easier. You could keep tracing the web one line at a time as your professor teaches you the rules, or you can start asking, “Why?” and learn how the web grows.
Math truly is beautiful, and with this strategy you might get to see that. If not, you can still pass your class.