Students tell me all the time: “I suck at math.”
I can sympathize. I sucked at math in high school. I hated it. And now I’m a math teacher! I love math! Here’s what I wish someone would’ve told me back in high school:
If you suck at math, the main thing you need to understand is that it doesn’t have to be that way. Unless you have an injury in the part of your brain that deals with numbers, you are fully capable of doing math. You are also capable of teaching yourself math.
Your real problem is lack of motivation. You don’t need to feel guilty about that. You just need to recognize that it’s holding you back and decide you want to change. There are a lot of good reasons to want to become competent at math.
First of all, adults who never become competent in math can’t do basic things like figure out a tip or a discount in their heads (it’s pretty easy). They also can’t understand a lot of the information they read. They don’t really know how much more a billion dollars is than a million. They don’t know what it means when the weatherman says there’s a 60% chance of rain. And so on.
Adults who don’t understand math are also more likely to make bad financial decisions because they don’t understand interest rates and can’t accurately estimate their monthly expenses.
An even more fundamental reason you should want to develop your mathematical skills is that, along with language, math is one of the main things that separates humans from animals. The human brain is the most complex, sophisticated object in the known universe. Use it! Any time you actively teach yourself something, you are making yourself smarter, more disciplined, and more independent.
How to Teach Yourself Math
For the most part, mathematical competence is a result of “how-to” knowledge. To learn how to factor a quadratic equation the first time, you have to read about it. But to learn how to do it well, you just have to do it over and over again. It’s the same with music, sports, drawing, and so on.
Mathematical concepts build upon themselves. By the time you’re learning how to factor quadratic equations, simpler operations like adding and multiplying shoud already be second nature. If you have trouble adding or multiplying without a calculator, you probably need to practice some simpler problems. However, there’s nothing wrong with using a calculator, especially for subtraction and division. Just try not to rely on it too much. You shouldn’t need a calculator to take 14% of 100 (or 200, for that matter).
Anytime you’re struggling with an SAT or ACT math problem and you realize you don’t really know how to deal with, say, ratios or percents or functions or whatever, just look it up! There are tons of math websites out there. (Two good ones are Math Forum and AAA Math.) You can also just Google the concept you need help with and look at the top results. Just be sure you do enough practice problems to get each concept down cold.
You can also get an algebra textbook (any one will do), and work through it, skipping anything you already understand. When a concept gives you trouble, work through as many practice problems as necessary to get it down cold. (Of course, this approach requires some discipline, but so does learning any worthwhile skill.)
Remember to always show your work and use proper mathematical notation. For example, if a problem says, “the sum of a, b, and c is equal to 10,” don’t write this:
a, b, c = 10
abc = 10
The word “sum” means add, so you should write:
a+b+c = 10
No one ever got good at math by using their own personal notation system. Pay attention to details, and you’re much less likely to make mistakes.
Try to set aside thirty minutes to an hour each day to practice math. You will get better at it in no time, and you’ll be glad you did. Not only will your test scores improve, but when you see the results, and see that you were capable of doing it all along, you’ll realize how many more things you can do if you just put your mind to them!