What It Feels Like to Be Bad at Math

4 - Pulling out hairAs a math teacher, it’s easy to get frustrated with struggling students. They miss class. They procrastinate. When you take away their calculators, they moan like children who’ve lost their teddy bears. (Admittedly, a trauma.)

Even worse is what they don’t do. Ask questions. Take notes. Correct failing quizzes, even when promised that corrections will raise their scores. Don’t they care that they’re failing? Are they trying not to pass?

There are plenty of ways to diagnose such behavior. Chalk it up to sloth, disinterest, out-of-school distractions – surely those all play a role. But if you ask me, there’s a more powerful and underlying cause.

Math makes people feel stupid. It hurts to feel stupid.

It’s hard to realize this unless you’ve experienced it firsthand. Luckily, I have (although it didn’t feel so lucky at the time). So here is my tale of mathematical failure. See if it sounds familiar.

***

Thanks to a childhood of absurd privilege, I entered college well-prepared. As a sophomore in the weed-out class for Yale math majors, I earned the high score on the final exam. After that, it seemed plausible to me that I’d never fail at anything mathematical.

But senior spring, I ran into Topology. A little like a bicycle running into a tree.

3 - Mobius strip (2 panels, small)

Topology had a seminar format, which meant that the students taught the class to each other. Twice during the semester, each of us would prepare a lecture, then assign and grade a homework assignment. By reputation, a pretty easy gig.

My failure began as most do: gradually, quietly. I took dutiful notes from my classmates’ lectures, but felt only a hazy half-comprehension. While I could parrot back key phrases, I felt a sense of vagueness, a slight disconnect – I knew I was missing things, but didn’t know quite what, and I clung to the idle hope that one good jolt might shake all the pieces into place.

But I didn’t seek out that jolt. In fact, I never asked for help. (Too scared of looking stupid.) Instead, I just let it all slide by, watching without grasping, feeling those flickers of understanding begin to ebb, until I no longer wondered whether I was lost. Now I knew I was lost.

So I did what most students do. I leaned on a friend who understood things better than I did. I bullied my poor girlfriend (also in the class) into explaining the homework problems to me. I never replicated her work outright, but I didn’t really learn it myself, either. I merely absorbed her explanations enough to write them up in my own words, a misty sort of comprehension that soon evaporated in the sun. (It was the Yale equivalent of my high school students’ worst vice, copying homework. If you’re reading this, guys: Don’t do it!)

I blamed others for my ordeal. Why had my girlfriend tricked me into taking this nightmare class? (She hadn’t.) Why did the professor just lurk in the back of the classroom, cackling at our incompetence, instead of teaching us? (He wasn’t cackling. Lurking, maybe, but not cackling.) Why did it need to be stupid topology, instead of something fun? (Topology is beautiful, the mathematics of lava lamps and pottery wheels.) And, when other excuses failed, that final line of defense: I hate this class! I hate topology!

Sing it with me: “I hate math!”

My first turn as lecturer went fine, even though my understanding was paper-thin. But as we delved deeper into the material, I could see my second lecture approaching like a distant freight train. I felt like I was tied to the tracks. (Exactly how Algebra 1 students feel when asked to answer those word problems about trains.)

5 - ProcrastinatingAs I procrastinated, spending more time at dinner complaining about topology than in the library doing topology, I realized that procrastination isn’t just about laziness. It’s about anxiety. To work on something you don’t understand means facing your doubts and confusions head-on. Procrastination pushes back that painful confrontation.

As the day approached, I began to panic. I called my dad, a warm and gentle soul. It didn’t help. I called my sister, a math educator who always lifts my spirits. It didn’t help. Backed into a corner, I scheduled a meeting with the professor to throw myself at his mercy.

I was sweating in the elevator up to his office. The worst thing was that I admired him. Most world-class mathematicians view teaching undergraduates as a burdensome act of charity, like ladling soup for unbathed children. He was different: perceptive, hardworking, sincere. And here I was, knocking on his office door, striding in to tell him that I had come up short. An unbathed child asking for soup.

6 - ConfessionalTeachers have such power. He could have crushed me if he wanted.

He didn’t, of course. Once he recognized my infantile state, he spoon-fed me just enough ideas so that I could survive the lecture. I begged him not to ask me any tough questions during the presentation – in effect, asking him not to do his job – and with a sigh he agreed.

I made it through the lecture, graduated the next month, and buried the memory as quickly as I could.

***

Looking back, it’s amazing what a perfect specimen I was. I manifested every symptom that I now see in my own students:

  • Muddled half-comprehension.
  • Fear of asking questions.
  • Shyness about getting the teacher’s help.
  • Badgering a friend instead.
  • Copying homework.
  • Excuses; blaming others.
  • Procrastination.
  • Anxiety about public failure.
  • Terror of the teacher’s judgment.
  • Feeling incurably stupid.
  • Not wanting to admit any of it.

It’s surprisingly hard to write about this, even now. Mathematical failure – much like romantic failure – leaves us raw and vulnerable. It demands excuses.

I tell my story to illustrate that failure isn’t about a lack of “natural intelligence,” whatever that is. Instead, failure is born from a messy combination of bad circumstances: high anxiety, low motivation, gaps in background knowledge. Most of all, we fail because, when the moment comes to confront our shortcomings and open ourselves up to teachers and peers, we panic and deploy our defenses instead. For the same reason that I pushed away Topology, struggling students push me away now.

Not understanding Topology doesn’t make me stupid. It makes me bad at Topology. That’s a difference worth remembering, whether you’re a math prodigy, a struggling student, or a teacher holding your students’ sense of self-worth in the palm of your hand. Failing at math ought to be like any failure, frustrating but ultimately instructive. In the end, I’m grateful for the experience. Just as therapists must undergo therapy as part of their training, no math teacher ought to set foot near human students until they’ve felt the sting of mathematical failure.

248 thoughts on “What It Feels Like to Be Bad at Math

  1. Thank goodness this is here. I’m reading this post after taking my college algebra midterm and coming out with a grade of 48.8%. This is the second time I’ve attempted this course and the second time I’m failing it. They say that doing the same thing the same way and expecting a different outcome is the definition of insanity; according to higher education, this is the path to enlightenment.

    I feel much better knowing that even “math people” struggle with this business sometimes. Eventually, humans will figure out that instruction irrespective of application is the least effective way to teach any discipline, let alone math, and we will begin focusing more on application than we do on memorization. Until then, I guess I’ll just keep trying.

  2. You put my thoughts and feelings into words, even ones I didn’t know I had. I am only a Sophomore, and for the first time in my life I am failing. I have always been a good student, I am that kid who never really had to study to get good grades. But this year is killing me, no matter how hard I try I don’t know how to do it, I don’t know what I’m doing and it sucks. My friends all have straight A’s and are breezing through the course, and I feel like I am the only one drowning. I can’t ask for help because that makes me feel stupid, and I feel like I am using the other person. I wish my mom could understand that.

    • The same thing has been happening to me this year. I never needed to study or work hard and always managed to do incredibly well on all my classes despite barely studying or practicing for any of my courses. But this year I’m failing half my classes and barely passing the others. Especially in the case of math which used to be one of my easier classes, but now i’m failing at it. I can’t honestly give you a good solution, or maybe people just lose their ability to think overnight, but I can tell you that I plan on getting a tutor for a bit to get back on track and learn all the lessons I never studied and simply winged during my tests and see how it goes, so maybe you could try that. Good luck

    • I completely agree. I’m a freshman and was placed in a course that is way too hard for me. It’s a curriculum that is normal for seniors at my school to take on the regular track. I always thought I was good at math, but now seeing as I have to really try in this class and I’m still only getting a C, I realized that I just never really had to try much and that’s why it was easy. I feel like everyone is so sick of listening to me complain about math, but I feel like it’s all I can do at this point.

  3. Thanks for posting this. It really helped me feel a bit better. I’ve never been good at math, and my final for Algebra II is tomorrow, and I felt like I was going to fail, but this makes me feel a bit better.

  4. i’ve felt like an impostor for most of my working life because i didn’t understand my own dissertation. topology? weirdly enough, for me, the *one* class in grad school that went *just right*: i worked like a demon and *kept up* somehow with the (many) new ideas. the lecturer (james f.~davis) later became my academic parent (“a local-global theorem for skew-hermitian forms over quaternion algebras”). the text was munkres. we did a *lot* of exercises. everything went to hell one semester later with “algebraic” topology. entirely my fault, of course; i had other excellent teachers and texts here as well. but the “too embarrassed to get help” thing stopped me cold. charles wells has an entry in his (very useful) _handbook_of_mathematical_discourse_ on “the ‘you-don’t-*know*?’ shriek”. i like this blog.

  5. Many teachers mistakenly assume students who don’t work don’t care but I have never found a single kid who didn’t care when I got to know them enough for them to be honest with me. This is such a great description of what struggling students have shared with me.

  6. Thank you for writing this! This was exactly how I felt as a high school senior. I was taking differential equations with 3 other students and it was an independent study class – no class time, just a textbook and homework assignments. I took this course again at university and it felt like my first class was just a fuzzy nightmare. My memory of this class really drives me to ensure that my kids have a different math experience. In my case, I believe I was accelerated just because and people may find this hard to believe, but as you say, it is possible to skate by even upper level math without true understanding.

  7. >Even worse is what they don’t do. Ask questions. Take notes. Correct failing quizzes, even when >promised that corrections will raise their scores. Don’t they care that they’re failing? Are they >trying not to pass?

    so those “promises” are not promises but more like threats.

  8. I wouldn’t even say that it makes you bad at topology. It makes you bad at learning topology in that particular way. I’m currently doing a PhD in topology, and I can honestly say that I spent pretty much three years (the two years prior to starting the PhD, and the first year of it) not really understanding topology, and struggling with it every step of the way. That is a major reason that I decided to do a PhD in it: it’s the field of maths that’s challenged me, really the only one that has. It’s harder, so there’s more to do, more progress to make. Honestly, I’m not even sure that I understand most of what I’m working on now. It’s just that the bits that I don’t understand have moved. When I first started, they were basic concepts. These days, it’s stuff that I’m not certain that more than a handful of people in the world do understand (and believe me, those people are not good at explaining it – I’m half tempted to think that means that they don’t understand it as well as I think they do).

    • Your experience seems the most useful to me. When I read that same line, ‘…bad at topology’, my heart sank. I want to study biology but I’m struggling with this math course, and everywhere I look people say if you can’t do math, you can’t do science…which is crushing me. But your perseverance gives me inspiration. I also think about Carl Sagan. He had a difficult time with many of his sciences, but pushed through, and became renowned. So, thanks for that. And good luck with that PhD!

  9. A year has passed since my chronicles with Diff. Eq. ‘s, Linear Algebra and Series and i still haven’t passed the exam, my last Math exam. I even studied with a tutor to no avail. I basically ended taking the summer off from uni and exams for the first time because studying Math again and again made me tired and nervous and miserably failing again made it even worse. The last teacher told me that i don’t have aptitude for math. I replied him that if it’s that way then it’s a good reason for me to take the summer off. That’s what i did and i don’t know if i’ll regret this in the future when i’ll start looking for jobs and i’ll have to explain why i took longer (how much? i don’t even know) to graduate, but i really did everything i could to succeed yet failed again. From now on i’ll keep studying, taking the exam and then taking some time off if failed again until i eventually pass. A lot of students are forced to do this and in my country this is frowned upon by politicians and unis (unis for example force to pay higher taxes if someone is taking more time than the norm to graduate in a subject, but they’ll basically never kick out anyone for not suiting standards, they’ll simply have an even harder time getting a qualified job when they graduate).

    Everyone seems to struggle in some subject at Uni, but some of them really suffer from struggling.

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  11. I gave up on math. I’ve never had a passing grade in my whole life. Every time I asked for help I was told that I should know it by that point, the teacher didn’t want to help me because they were on youtube, and the other kids laughed and threw things at me and called me nasty names (my teachers never reprimanded them for this, of course. They just said things like “Knock it off” and never went any further) so after being called a Stupid bitch and a dumb whore enough times and generally feeling like no one cared, I stopped caring. It just became too much. My mom being a math wiz only ever told me that I wasn’t trying hard enough. Yes mom, I like failing math all the way to 12th grade. Thank you.

    As much as it pains me, I will probably flunk out because of that cursed subject. I mean, I can’t even figure out how to do stuff like “3 fourths divided be one half.” just seeing fractions makes my blood pressure go up. The growing focus of schools shoving math down everyone’s throat doesn’t help either. in 2013, %60 of my school failed math and about 10 people I know dropped out rather than ever go to another math class. I feel the same way to be honest, but my mother would probably throw me to the curb if I did. I understand that math is e=important (some of it. I NEVER use any of the BS that we are taught in class. I just add, subtract, multiply and divide.) but the way that most schools teach it makes you feel like your swallowing molten glass while being beat in the head with a crowbar and walking on a floor made of rusty razor blades. They teach to so much so fast and if you get behind, well then fuck you. By the time you make it to 7th grade, a lot of people have long sense given up.

    I am one of them.

    It pains me to know that even with A’s and B’s in most of my subjects that I will never pass because of stupid things like P.E. being required and needing 4 math credits. Apparently if you are not good at math, you are worthless. And math has made me feel worthless. I’ve actually contemplated sueside a few times because the thought of the look on my mom’s face when I finally flunked out because of math was too much to bear. School used to be fun. Now I wake up every morning wishing I would break something so that i could miss a day. Ten thousand state and district tests, a million math questions, and years of contentious failure have driven me to wake up with a sense of hopelessness and question why I even try my other subjects because I cannot pass without math. Math hasn’t just turned me off from trying, it has taken my hope, self worth, and made me feel like an idiot for my entire life. I can say in all honesty that it will be a relief to flunk out. It won’t make my life any easier, but I wouldn’t have to get up every morning and feel like I’ve already failed before I even started. When the world learns that you can’t learn everything there is to know about a person from a test score, maybe we can advance as a civilization. Until then, You have lost a lot of us. Thank you math people who make the tests and curriculum. You have succeeded in destroying so many dreams.

    Sincerely, a brilliant student in every subject but math who has just thrown in the towel.

    • Zhitera: did you ever think it’s probably not you? It sounds like you have stayed with and struggled through a lot of math classes. I teach classes of kids that are absolutely like you- good in every subject but math. In their case (and maybe yours, too?) they have a processing issue with math. Specifically math. I help them find other ways to learn what they can’t learn in the way a lot of people learn math.
      You sound very resilient – and tired of not getting this stuff. Show your post to your mom, and the counselor at your school. Share my answer with them. Reply through this thread, if you’d like more information on what I’m talking about. You deserve to shine in all that you do.

    • Hi Zhitera! I know exactly how you feel about Math. I need 2 math classes to graduate with my bachelors, and I’ve failed the last four math classes I’ve taken and I’m taking my fifth math class. Today, I have my first math exam of the semester and I looked at a sample exam from couple of years ago and I don’t know any of those concepts.The author perfectly summarized my situation with math which is high anxiety, low motivation, and gaps in background knowledge. I know what a struggle it is and how it can make you feel so worthless and stupid because I’ve been there and still struggles with those thoughts from time to time. I was supposed to graduate this past May, but I couldn’t because I don’t have my math credits. I’ve lost so much time and money about $2,400 because I keep failing math. But,I’m still trying, so I need you to do the same. Please don’t flunk out! You need to get your high school diploma, just like I need my bachelors degree. You came this far, so don’t quit now! You are a smart young lady and if you will keep persevering, you will make it – we both will. I know that for a fact. I believe in you. Like Ms. Clara said, reach out to your mom or guidance counselor and be completely honest and tell them how you feel about this and ask for help. I’m sure they will help you. You got this. I’m rooting for you. Feel free to reply to this thread, if you’d like. I’ll be praying for you.

    • Hi Zhitera!

      I commented on here earlier and I wanted to tell you what happened. I ended up failing the fifth math class I took as well. But, I finally faced my worst fear and reached out to the Disability Resource Center at my university. I told them my situation and I had a screening done for learning disability and the results showed that there was a strong possibility that I had a learning disability. So, they referred me to a Licensed School Psychologist to have a thorough evaluation done. The results came and I have a Specific Learning Disorder with Impairment in Mathematics. To be honest, I’ve never felt so relieved in my life! I really wish I knew this earlier in my life and not as a senior in college. With this diagnosis, I am allowed to take Math Substitution courses, extra time when taking anything that is timed, and provided with class notes before lecture. I’m so glad I reached out and got the help I needed.🙂

  12. Guys, by the way it’s finally over for me. I’ve finally passed the exam with the rough equivalent of an American B mark. That was the last math exam or test in my whole life. Bottom line: if you have a dream keep pursuing it no matter how many times you fail and then, one way or another, it will become true. It may not become true the way you expected it to become true but one day it’ll definitely come true.

  13. I love math. I am fascinated by how everything works and how it all revolves around mathematics.
    Today I am crushed because I have just received my score for the second exam and I got an F. I did great on the first but this what makes me upset is that I failed on questions that I knew how to solve but I didn’t review prior the exam because I was focusing so hard on rules for taking the derivatives, how to derive a formula of the derivative of inverse functions, related rate problems, limits etc.

    I feel down because I work very hard on the homework and I study each chapter making sure I understand the concepts. So now I am too sad to continue with the homework on the next chapter. So now I’m going for a brief ride to clear head and continue on because I don’t want to fail this class.

    Just wanted to vent a little ….😦

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  15. I wanted to carry on studying literature but due to the fact that it isn’t available in my school I had to take math instead… boy oh boy… do I regret it…

    haven’t gotten anything remotely close to passing…

    and in asia if you’re bad at math… people look at you as though you’re bad at everything…

  16. This writing has made me feel immensely better about my current struggle with Algebra 2. I’m an adult student trying to finish my degree, and I was so scared of entering a math class after a decade I chose to take it online. What an unwise decision that has turned out to be. It saves my face to hide behind my laptop screen, but my brain is running with the bulls, about to be trampled at any moment. Why basic math is so hard for me I’ll never know, but knowing brilliant mathematical people even have moments of panic over numbers makes me feel less like a dunce.

  17. Man you were really luck to have such a teacher. And to get most of the math you were taught.
    Believe me it’s not procrastination when you send your health down the crapper by spending countless nights with coffee and cola trying to force that final formula into your mind only for it to burst open like an overfilled suitcase.
    Cue next day at the exam when you stare dumbfounded at the page, the answer just slightly out of your reach.
    The teacher doesn’t care, he’s simply too smart to understand my situation and too old to be bothered to try. So he/she fails you over a couple percentiles.
    The caffeine catches up with you and together with a bout of depression lands you in a hospital bed for a couple of weeks, thus missing the rest of your exams and having to repeat the whole year… All… Over…
    Will the college reimburse you for your damaged mind and health? No! You’ll be lucky to get a couple of teachers to get the situation. Some students will rebound, many won’t.

    Screw college ! Sincerely,
    Some random dude on the internet.

    PS: I never told you about the guy who got straight A’s and failed over missing 2 seminars because he was in the hospital. Teacher didn’t want to let him to do a makeover. Dude tried to commit suicide. Nobody gave a shit.

    • I completely understand you. It’s entirely possible to burn out over a subject that is hard for you. This is what i keep stressing to everyone who keeps telling me that the key is “studying more”. I had some trouble with a Calculus 3+Linear Algebra exam, after passing a Calculus 1+2 exam with flying colors (but still some fatigue that i recovered soon, however). Math can get pretty hard for me too for no apparent reason and after passing it i basically went for about half a year studying much easier subjects (if you want to call things such as Biochemistry easier than Calculus of course). What did i notice? For these good 5 months and half i didn’t memorize anything at all. I just kept studying for days only to forget everything the next day. Of course i didn’t go to exams because all i could get in the best cases would have been C like grades. I just seem to have had some kind of soft burn out that affected my memory. Parents kept thinking i didn’t study at all and i did no longer go to Uni because i had followed all courses (i’m not American btw). But this wasn’t the case. However a week ago i started remembering what i studied again, did some repetition for about 4 days before the exam (you can call this procastination lol) and then passed a moderately hard course with flying colors (A-) and i keep shoving it in the face of everyone who didn’t believe me. I was just burnt out by Math. Then, in my country you just graduate years later if your pace is slower than what someone meant it to be, you absolutely don’t risk failing out or probation in most unis here (except select ones and i understand this). But some people just seem to not understand what it’s like to experience burn out and temporarily lose all your academical skills due to hard science studies.

  18. I have pretty much always struggled with math. From the first week of Kindergarden to today, my Sophomore year. I still struggle with even the most basic of Algebra equations, and anything to do with mathematical relationships just seems to shut my brain down. I literally have no idea how I’m going to get into college, as even the most basic of bachelors degrees requires you to pass a math course of some sort. I don’t know how I’m going to survive the higher math requirements of anything beyond that.

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  20. This is all so true, and think of this: what it’s like to go through all that when you’re six, when your teacher is a bully. I didn’t have to wait till near-adulthood for this to begin. The pattern was set long before high school. Arithmetic beyond slow and carefull addition remains distressing and mostly incomprehensible today, forty years later.

  21. my name is John worst subject is math I had a math teacher that didnt explain work to well I overheard people talking that he disnt explain math to well so well either I asked for help I did get that but I never understood it so I got couple of F’s so I went to summer shool cause I had to my principal called me in for classes for next year he said I passed 7th grade I wad happy then before school started I went to go pick up my schedule it said I was in 7th grade again they changed my schedule to 7th grade which we got a new principal so ig thats y I didnt past I dont understand but I don’t know it made me so mad are schools loud to do that??😭

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