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"Is it Hard to Learn Math?": A Tutor's Response to Common Student Complaints

Math is often touted as cruel and unusual punishment. It is widely considered to be an evil that exceeds even physical pain, hard labor, and the frustrations of the DMV.  For generation after generation, parents tell children, and unfortunately, teachers tell students: "Don't worry, math was hard for me, too." Many people believe it is hard to learn math. Yet I'm here to try to debunk this idea.

If you could not read, you'd be socially ostracized. An inability to perform basic math functions, however, is grounds for sympathy. Yes, I do believe it is possible to *gasp* LEARN MATH.  So why do we think math is so awful?

"Math is Boring"

Math is unlike other subjects. In history, we learn stories about cool heroes and villains, whacky kings and queens, and periods of hope and despair.  In English we read stories, fictional and non-fictional, about love and tragedy eloquently packaged with artistic flair. Science builds the realms we dream in for the future. Art allows us to express ourselves. Music soothes the savage beast. 

Math teaches us that the sum of the first hundred natural  numbers can expressed as the product of the number of numbers and the sum of the highest and lowest number all divided by two. Unlike other subjects, math doesn't inherently tell a story. It isn't human; it feels cold. To teach, it's necessary to invoke emotion. To accomplish this, I find it helpful to write fun word problems.  For elementary schoolers, this might entail a platypus getting a certain number of compliments about his new hairdo. For high schoolers, this may entail finding the trajectory of water as someone dumps it on someone else.  If it makes you feel, not just think, you're more likely to remember it. 

"Math is Confusing"

Math problems often require many steps to achieve one answer. For example, solving systems of linear equations requires several steps to get from 

8y + 2x= 28 and 
2y + 4x = 6y + 16 


x= 6 and y= 2.

It may seem daunting for many students to face these types of problems. However, it doesn't have to be. To solve problems that have the same process every time, it's helpful to identify the process, write down the process, make a poster of the process, and remember the process. Ultimately, it doesn't matter if a student remembers this specific answer as long as they can solve the problem again. 

"Math is Hard"

Unfortunately, math carries a negative stigma. Many people have not had excellent math teachers or excellent math experiences, and they pass on this negativity and doubt to their children, their friends, and sometimes their students. Consequently, from the ripe age of 5 or 6, some students already believe they cannot learn math.  These students  will tell their friends how hard math is, and the cycle continues. If your child struggles with math, one of the best things you can do to help him or her is to help boost their confidence in the matter. Never suggest that it will be a struggle. Instead, instill confidence in your child. Tell them to keep trying, tell them they can do it, and get them the resources they need to succeed. 

Is it hard to learn math? Is math inherently torturous? I don't think so. With a little enthusiasm and strategy, even math can be conquered by you or your child.
Keely F
Math and Science Tutor
University of Texas in Dallas
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