The Difficulty of Math

The Difficulty of Math

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Posted: February 27, 2018

By Perry and Cherilyn Ashley – Tutoring Club of Northern CO.  – January 16, 2018

“I’m just not a math person.”  We hear this from students and parents all the time.  Unfortunately, this is one of the most self-destructive ideas in America today.   In most cases, everyone can do math, but one’s self-destructive negative thoughts toward math hamstrings their ability to do it.  Students fall into three categories when it comes to understanding math:  math comes easy, math is difficult, or “I will never get it”.  In 2005,  Gallup conducted a poll that asked students to name the school subject that they considered to be the most difficult.   Not surprisingly, mathematics came out on top of the difficulty chart.   The problem with math starts with the fact that we believe it is difficult.   Dictionary.com defines the word difficult as “not easily or readily done; requiring much labor, skill, or planning to be performed successfully.”  The problem with math is it is difficult for many students and it requires patience and persistence.  Simply, it requires lots of effort, time, and energy to comprehend.  Therefore, math for many students has little to do with brain power; it has a lot to do with staying power.

Mathematics has often been termed the “gatekeeper” of success or failure for high school graduation and career success.  A lack of sufficient mathematical skills and understanding affects one’s ability to make critically important educational, life, and career decisions. (National Research Council [NRC], 1989).  Currently in American education, mathematics has become a filter which weeds students out of the pipeline rather than being a pump which helps them move through it (NRC, 1989, p.7).

One of the key causes that filters students into these categories is a time-based curriculum which sets a student’s timeline for understanding.   For many students, time runs out in a classroom for them to “get it” as the teacher moves onto the next topic.  In the United States, with our scaffolding approach to learning, each concept learned is the further built on with each additional math class.  The student that “doesn’t get it” develops gaps in their understanding, making each additional concept harder to understand.  Without assistance, this understanding gap will continue to grow, making math unbearable.

As Gordon B. Hinkley stated, “You can’t build a great building on a weak foundation.  You must have a solid foundation if you’re going to have a strong superstructure.” Therefore, math students who are studying more complex concepts but have shaky foundations struggle.  An example is Algebra students who lack the foundation of knowing:  Ratio, proportions, decimals, fractions, and baisc numeration. Without these foundational skills, Algebra becomes difficult.   Therefore, at the Tutoring Club we utilize a diagnostic test to determine where exactly these skill gaps are.  We then focus an individual learning plan to eliminate the learning gaps while also assisting a student with their current class work.  Simply, by meeting the student where they are in classwork and simultaneously working on filling the gaps they’ve developed, students learn to understand math, and for some, even enjoy it.