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BBawlight's avatar

I don't get it. Why are so many people bad at math?

Asked by BBawlight (2400points) December 9th, 2012

This has always bugged me. I’ve been great at math for as long as I can remember (except for a period of time where I couldn’t do long division), but tons of people seem to just not get it.
Why is this? Is it because numbers don’t physically take up space, which leads to some complex thought? Or what? I don’t get it.

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47 Answers

partyrock's avatar

Because math sucks and is boring. I understand people who like it, but I’m just not into it.

It is also because I am more creative, artistic, and not into “logical” things like math or science. I love painting, drawing, sewing, photography, all things creative. I am not saying just because you like math that doesn’t mean you aren’t creative.

My sister is an artist as well (she paints and sculpts) and she can’t do math to save her life…

augustlan's avatar

Most people have different strengths and weaknesses. I never understood how anyone could be a bad speller, because it always came so easily to me. But I’ve come to know some extremely smart people who can’t spell worth a damn. It’s just not their strong suit. Few people are equally gifted in all areas.

Judi's avatar

I have a hard time with math. I think it comes from the same place in my brain that can’t draw (or write) a straight line. My columns get mixed up and then I think I’m also a bit dyslexic. I understand the concepts and the formulas, but the details…. yuck. I always make a tiny mistake that messes everything up.
Some people are detail people and some people are concept people and a few lucky souls can put it all together.

desiree333's avatar

I am seriously “illiterate” when it comes to any sort of math. I think it may be because numbers are such an abstract concept. When I’m introduced to a new challenge in my statistics class, it’s completely fine. But once the formula/steps are put in front of me I get so confused that I forget the basic premise of the question anyways. Words just cannot translate coherently into numbers for me. Maybe it has to do with what hemisphere is most dominant in your brain.

lillycoyote's avatar

I don’t really know. It could be a lot of things including that people are simply different from one another; the have different interests and different apptitudes; peoples’ brains are all wired differently. We can’t expect everyone to love what we love as much as we do or to be as good at it as we are; whatever it is, math or anything else.

I suspect that it also may be the lack of really good math teachers, people who make math interesting. For all our talk, we really don’t value teachers in our society, here in the U.S. and people who might otherwise go into teaching simply don’t.

I just was never all that interested in or good at math, in spite of the fact that my mother was mathematician. She just never really understood why I, her own daughter, and many people, just didn’t find math not just as interesting as she did but as “fun.” I’m really sorry Mom, but really, I just don’t see the “fun” in it.

But you also may right about the “numbers don’t physically take up space” thing being a factor.
That’s the way it was for me, at least. The only math that ever interested me, the only math I ever enjoyed was geometry, because those numbers did physically take up space, in a way. Geometry was concrete; it concerned “physical objects” sort of; it wasn’t so abstract as the rest of math was to me.

ETpro's avatar

Well, it makes for a very manageable electorate so the political leaders who help shape our educational system might have a vested interest if having schools that are lousy at teaching math.

Mariah's avatar

I don’t really get it either, but I just remind myself that I’m bad at certain things that other people find easy, like anything motor skills related, and that it’s just pure luck that I had a math disposition and not a motor skill disposition, and that other people got lucky in the other way and they’re probably sitting there wondering why I can’t catch a ball while I wonder why they can’t do calculus. Meh.

The thing I don’t get is why some people almost seem to take pride in being bad at math. You don’t hear anyone running around proclaiming that they’re illiterate, but “fuck math” is a common phrase uttered in high schools. Why is the one skill viewed as so much less important as the other? Math permeates everything and even if one is not predisposed to it, I feel they should make an effort to learn or at the very least not feel oddly proud about being bad at it.

Coloma's avatar

What @augustlan said. Everyones brain is hard wired with superior and inferior functions. Some will trend more towards language, others towards more theoretical and conceptional abilities and others towards more abstract thinking/problem solving.
I am fairly adept in all areas but math is the weakest for me as well. Thank god for calculators. haha

Different brains work differently, that’s all you need to know.

Aethelwine's avatar

It bugs me when a person can’t point to Vermont on a map or tell me where Patagonia is. How can a person not know the world they live in? I love geography and they don’t, I guess.

I gave up on math when I took my first Algebra class. My father, a man who is very smart with numbers (he worked as an accountant and worked for the IRS and a large medicare insurance company) sat down with me and tried to help me one night with my algebra homework. I ended up in tears because I just didn’t understand it. I quit the class and was allowed to take business math. That was the end of math for me. I excelled in other areas with no problem.

glacial's avatar

I think a large part of the problem for some people is that they believe they are bad at math, and so don’t see that they can do it. My best friend in high school consistently insisted that she couldn’t do math, but we were in all the same high-level classes together, and ended up at the top of those classes. She still kept saying she didn’t have a head for math, and that she was only there because of my help (which is nonsense). Her family was not terribly pro-school, and did not have high expectations for her academically; I think that dramatically affected her own expectations of herself.

BBawlight's avatar

Wow… I didn’t expect to get so many answers to this question in only one hour… They were all GA to me!
I love math. It’s my favorite subject in school and I find it super fun! I do it when I’m bored… It gets me excited like art gets me excited.

Sunny2's avatar

I had trouble with basic facts in arithmetic when I was in second grade, (7 yrs old.) The teacher made a circle on the board with the numbers 1–9 around the outside. She’d put a number in the center and then have 2 students see who could add or multiply the outside number with the inside number. I knew I was smart, but I hated losing. When I got beat, I would give up and just try to echo what my opponent said as fast as I could. And in 6th grade I didn’t care if I got the problems right or wrong, I just wanted to be the first to get my paper in. I think my ‘me first’ personality got in my way.

livelaughlove21's avatar

I’m pretty good at math, especially statistics, but calculus and trig frustrates the hell out of me. I find math pretty boring in general, but I’m often confused at why so many claim to “suck at math” as well. I always thought that was because I’ve yet to encounter a subject in school that I just can’t grasp. School has always come pretty easy to me, fortunately.

I certainly don’t do math for fun, but while it can be challenging, it’s not all that hard to learn if you put in some effort.

desiree333's avatar

@livelaughlove21 I am in a psych statistics course currently and I would do anything to have math come easily to me. I put in copious amount of effort into the class, and even get tutoring. It’s still near impossible to grasp and I plateau at around 67% on any test no matter how much I study. I easily get high marks in any other subject (except science). So for some people effort isn’t the issue, believe me!

Coloma's avatar


You know you are gifted don’t you?
I have discussed this with you before. No doubt about it kiddo! :-)

BBawlight's avatar

@Coloma I might… I bring myself down all the time… It’s a little hard to explain, really. That would take me all the way back to pre-school. I don’t want to go back there in my memories… You said I was “bright” which made me smile on the inside.

livelaughlove21's avatar

@desiree333 I’m in psych stats now as well. I see many of my classmates struggling with it. Hypothesis testing especially. Even I have difficulty getting through a two-factor ANOVA.

desiree333's avatar

@livelaughlove21 My biggest struggle now would have to be figuring power. I’m starting to get the hang of hypothesis testing/cutoff scores and such.

Bellatrix's avatar

I haven’t read all the other posts so I apologise if I am repeating things others have said.

I think there are three essential elements to being ‘good’ at maths.

Firstly, you have to have a strong understanding of the elementary theories and formulas. I see maths as a bit like building a wall – if the foundations aren’t strong – the wall will be weak.

Secondly, I think teaching quality is absolutely paramount when it comes to teaching maths. At high school the first maths teacher I had made everything seem so complicated. He also used to allow us to only write down the answers to problems – not the problem and the steps taken to solve the problem. So you couldn’t backtrack to see where you went wrong. I, and the rest of my class except the mathematical geniuses, struggled to understand what he was teaching us. The following year I had a different and better teacher but by then my confidence was screwed. The year after that, they dropped me into the middle level group (not quite dumby maths but not far off it) and I had a truly brilliant maths teacher. We still had to learn the same content but I think the expectations were not so high. However, he wrote all the formulas/equations on the board and we had to copy them down, step-by-step. If I didn’t understand something in class, I could go home and unpack the whole process in my own time. I ended up getting 98% on my exam and bugger me if they didn’t move me back up into the egghead’s class. I was screwed again!

Thirdly, and the first two requirements are essential for this to be achieved, you need to feel confident that you can do maths. After my experience at school my confidence plummeted and I did very badly in my end of high school exams. I, and others in the same boat, pleaded to be dropped down a grade into the mid-level class so we could be with the effective teacher. The school wouldn’t allow it. In terms of the importance of confidence, I have seen the same with other students (I am now a professor at a university). If they had a bad experience with maths at school, they need to work on their confidence as much as their knowledge in order to do well in maths.

And I am British – so we say maths.

Judi's avatar

@Bellatrix, I loved your last line. :-)

lillycoyote's avatar

@desiree333 and @livelaughlove21 I just reread my post above and I really should have proofread it, but I mentioned that my mother was a mathematician, and that was what kind of mathematician she was… a statistician, an academic, and an incredibly good teacher, but I have to admit that I am a little biased, but she just loved it. It would have made her so happy to know that you both like statistics, but not only that, but that you think it’s “fun”. Perhaps one of you, at least, should have been her daughter, rather than me. Mathematically, I was a disappointment to her. :-)

She was an Associate Professor of Statistics and Research Design in the Doctoral Program of Nursing at the University of Maryland at Baltimore and one of, at least at the very top of the list of things that made her such a good teacher is that she just loved what she did; she loved the math, she loved statistics and though maybe she couldn’t always succeed in making her students love math and statistics as much as she did, I think her love of the subject infused her teaching. She cared enough, both about her students, and the math, to want them to get along together. :-)

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skfinkel's avatar

Check out, a website by two people (one of whom is my son and the other my daughter in law) who see the fun and beauty of math and want to pass it on to others.

LostInParadise's avatar

Math does not come naturally. We are born with the ability to create language. Spoken language is universal. The concept of number is not. We, along with some other animal species, are born with concepts of the numbers one through three, but the concept of counting is not inborn. There are still tribes that do not have words for numbers greater than 3.

Although our technology depends on math, a person can get by without doing algebra or geometry. Not being able to read or write, on the other hand, is a serious handicap.

The way that math is taught is pitiful. We view language as something to explore and make our own. Students are given assignments to write stories and essays. Math, on the other hand, is taught as something rigid, all about getting the right answer. It is a system almost guaranteed to generate hostility to the subject. In recent years, there has been some movement away from this approach. The computer opens up lots of possibilities for mathematical exploration, although even without computers there is much that can be done. There is, unfortunately, much resistance to this approach, which has resulted in the so called math wars, a topic worthy of its own thread.

Way back when I was going to college, I did some substitute teaching between the end of the college term and the end of the public school term. I was never given any teaching assignments. To provide the students with something to do, I gave them recreational math problems. I was very surprised by the enthusiasm these problems generated. The thing about recreational math problems is that they require the kind of creative problem solving ability that characterizes mathematics at the highest level. I have since learned that I am far from the only one who has noticed this. Some teachers give recreational math problems to students as a reward for completing the rest of their work. Surely something is amiss here.

Aesthetic_Mess's avatar

Math is awesome!
I never understood why people hated it that much either. It’s one art that, if you do it right, will never fail you.

mazingerz88's avatar

Guess I just have a different brain. It seems there is so much data that needs to be hardwired into the brain and I just can’t cope. Took an electrical engineering course in my first year. This professor wrote an equation that filled three huge blackboards. I remember he lost me at the first one. After he finished, there was this female classmate who discussed with him the whole thing that he wrote. That’s when I decided to quit.

Mariah's avatar

I think @glacial is absolutely right. Confidence is huge in math. Unfortunately this means that being bad at math can be a self-reinforcing cycle. You do badly partially because you have no confidence, you have no confidence because you always do badly.

Oftentimes I start a problem with not much of a clue how I’m going to arrive at my answer. I just start doing things. Oftentimes the equation has to get uglier before it gets better. Getting an equation into a recognizable form can require a whole lot of manipulation. Without confidence, you probably won’t follow through on your attempts. You’ll see how messy it is getting and think “surely this can’t be right” and scratch it out when you were really 2 steps away from the answer.

On a societal level, this phenomenon is very real and is a problem, and it’s called “stereotype threat.” Ever hear that stereotype that girls can’t do math? Turns out, if girls listen to that, the pressure from it can actually cause them to do worse. It is a documented phenomenon. So maybe girls “can’t do math” just because we keep telling them they can’t.

LostInParadise's avatar

You bring up a good point, and what makes it worse is that there is peer pressure directed against girls who are good at math. There is this ridiculous idea that being good at math makes a girl less feminine. It makes me angry just to think about it, writing off half of humanity as being ineligible to love math. Mathematics is gender neutral. I have heard that lately the girls have been catching up in demonstrated math ability.

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225barbie's avatar

Because calculators are everywhere; I use the one on my phone all of the time. Plus, it is the ever-changing world of instant answers and Google.

BBawlight's avatar

@225barbie Believe it or not, but I’m actually much slower on a calculator. Working things out on paper is much faster for me and helps me find my mistakes. I can also ‘work out’ math in my mind because I see everything placed right in there…

ETpro's avatar

@BBawlight And I thought I was the only one. I have to work it out in my head or on paper before a calculator is any good to me.

BBawlight's avatar

@ETpro In class, when it comes to working with integers, the kids start reaching for the calculators on their desks and I look at the worksheet, write down the answer, and I’m done with the whole sheet not three minutes later. Which bores me to death…

partyrock's avatar

I’m really really bad at math. But really really good in art, English, film, history and government. I could never understand why Math was ALWAYS a D and all other subjects were A’s.

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BBawlight's avatar

@venusPdiaz That sounds plausible… I know most of my times tables where others have to use a calculator (I despise those things…).

ETpro's avatar

@BBawlight If you can’t basically figure out what to do in your head, a calculator is utterly useless. Resize an image from 892 pixels wide by 397 pixels high to 600 pixels wide and maintain the aspect ratio. If you can’t set that problem up in your head or at least on paper, you have no idea which number to multiply/divide which other number by.

BBawlight's avatar

@ETpro True. Is the answer approx. 267.04 pixels wide? With an aspect ratio of 56/25?

ETpro's avatar

Spot on on the image dimensions and the aspect ratio is close enough to work with. It doesn’t resolve into a whole number aspect ratio. Therein lies the value of calculators for those that don’t have math units the equal of a supercomputer running in their heads.

BBawlight's avatar

@ETpro Usually if it’s a decimal like that, you estimate. Although I could have said it’s approximately 300 pixels wide or even 270. But I felt like rounding to the hundredths place… So you don’t need a calculator if you’re just rounding, right?

ETpro's avatar

@BBawlight Have it your way. I have no way of knowing how easily you can calculate in your head. Figuring out the missing number in the resize is easy for me to do in my head. Figuring out how large the numbers have to get before the aspect ratio resolves to a whole number is not easy for me unless I want to multiply up and just claim it’s the result.

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