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Updated 2 July 2013

Why is Math so Hard?

Copyright © 2003–2017 by Stan Brown

Summary: Math is no harder than other subjects, but it is different. You will succeed by taking those differences into account.

Contents:

See also: Math Students’ FAQ
How to Succeed in Math

What is it about college math that makes it so different from your other courses? For many students the problem is just that they don’t know they’re getting into. But there’s good news: You already have the skills you need to succeed in math, knowing what you know about your other courses.

Math is like sports.

When you’re learning to play a sport, is it enough to read books about the sport, memorize some facts, and maybe watch movies about it? Of course not! With sports you learn by doing. It’s the same in math: you can’t just read the book, you have to do the practice problems (homework).

Math is like sports in another way. If you want to be good at basketball, do you practice only right before a game? No, you practice every day or almost every day. It’s the same with math: you have to keep your “mental muscles” limber by working with it every day.

Math is like foreign languages.

When you study a foreign language, you know there will be a lot of words you don’t know. The same is true in math, except that many of the words look like English words. But math terms like set, prove, hypothesis, term, solution have special meanings that are different from ordinary English. Approach math like a foreign language and make sure you understand every term. It might be helpful to build up a vocabulary list in your notebook.

Math is like science or engineering.

You need to be very meticulous and work everything out logically. There may be different ways to get to the right answer, but there’s only one right answer.

Math is like building construction.

When you’re building a house, you would never think of trying to put up the second floor before the first floor. Building is a sequential process.

The same is true in math: each concept builds on the ones that came before. In history, you can understand the Depression pretty well even if you didn’t study World War I. But in math it’s different: you need to understand factoring very well or you won’t be able to solve equations.

This means that if you’re strapped for time, the one course that’s most dangerous to let slide is your math course. With other courses, if you don’t understand day 11 you can probably follow the lecture on day 12. With math, you have to understand day 11 or you’ll likely be lost in day 12.

The moral is that you need to stay current. If ever you don’t understand something, get help on it right away. Otherwise you’ve just knocked away the first floor of your house, and you know what that will do when you try to put up the second floor.

Math is useless and yucky.

Okay, granted that lots of students hate math. It’s not your fault: lots of students were not taught math well in grade school. The good news is that you can do well even if you don’t like it. In life there are all sorts of things we’d rather not do, but we do them anyway.

Go ahead and hate math if you want to, but do the work anyway. Incredible as it seems, if you accept the challenge and keep up with the work from the first day, you might actually find that you like it! At least you’ll have the sense of satisfaction you get from a job well done.

Math courses move too fast.

At least part of this is not about math but about college. In high school, an intermediate algebra course takes a full year, probably five days a week. That’s about 180 class hours. In college, the same course takes one semester three times a week: 42 class hours. The material moves faster just because you’re at the college level.

The best strategy for college math? Don’t fall behind. If you’re jogging or bicycling in a group, it’s a lot easier to stay with the group than to stop along the way and then try to catch up later.

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