In the Gallup Youth Survey of 2005, 29% of US high-schoolers named Math in general as their most difficult subject, with a further 8% naming a specific math discipline (algebra and geometry). The Gallup data also showed a big discrepancy according to gender – 44% of girls naming Math as their most difficult subject, versus 31% of boys. (1) A 2003 international survey also indicated that, while the majority of students (64%) are meeting intermediate level Math criteria, the gap widens as they advance, to the point that only 23% are able to meet the international criteria for high level Math standards.
Math is clearly the nemesis of many a teenager (and younger!) and the Common Core program, with its different approach to Math teaching and learning, has exacerbated the problem for both students and the parents trying to support them. Coupled with the difficulty in understanding how pure math concepts can relate to the real world, and the need for an in-depth understanding of previous concepts before progressing, Math teachers frequently report keeping students motivated and on track as one of their top concerns.
Educational research is awash with theories related to Math learning. The right brain / left brain theory is already well established, where left brain thinkers are logical and sequential, whilst their right brain thinking counterparts are more artistic and “global”, taking in a lot of information at one time and letting it sink in over time, making it harder for them to quickly grasp the concepts that are needed to move forwards. Other theories relate to styles of learning or a “Deficit in the Representation of Numerosity” (Geary, 2013) (2).
But all scientists agree, Math is a sequential, cumulative discipline. Rather like a set of building blocks, one concept forms a foundation for the next, and that foundation needs to set properly to form a stable base before the student can move forwards.
Unfortunately, due to the curriculum that needs to be covered during the year, the size of the classroom population and the pressures on the teacher to keep everyone together and moving forwards regardless of ability level, students whose brains are not able to quickly grasp the concepts are left struggling to keep up, building a shaky foundation for the future. Well-meaning parents who don`t want to pressure their children further will accept that a C grade is good enough. And it would be – were it not for the fact that the children then need to build further on concepts they have not yet fully understood.
As time goes on, without intervention, it can become more and more difficult for the student, leading to a dislike of the subject, a lack of confidence in their ability, and even a recognized Math Anxiety – literally a fear of Math. Like any fear, the answer to conquering it is to face it head on. Recognize it, accept it, break it down into its individual parts, and tackle them one at a time. Rather like the way you would approach a Math problem!
Step 1: Positive Thinking
It has been shown in various studies that thinking positively about yourself and your abilities actually improves performance in all areas, including Math. So step 1 in helping your child find their way back to the right path is positive reinforcement. Reassure them that they are not “stupid” or “useless” – many people find Math difficult, but it IS possible to build a strong foundation with the right approach. Their situation is not hopeless. There is an answer.
Step 2: Intervention
The earlier you intervene to address Math issues the better. This is partly because of the shaky foundation we talked about earlier, and partly because of the loss of confidence and positivity that will result from difficulties, which will then only add to the burden of getting back on track. Intervention can take different forms, but the most successful approach will always be to tailor a path for the student that matches their learning style, pace and ability. A professional Math tutor will be able to smoothly and effectively identify problem areas and develop a path to navigate through them and bring the child back to where they need to be.
Step 3: Rollback
As Math learning is a sequential process, the most logical way to move forwards is to roll back to where the problems started. This is why early intervention is key. The bad news is that the longer the problem has continued, the further back you will need to go. However, is that the further back you need to go, the faster generally speaking) you are going to be able to grasp the facts that eluded you in the past, which will have you moving forwards again at an accelerated pace, and building confidence with more speed. Again, this is where a professional Math tutor is a worthwhile investment. They will be able to quickly identify just how far back you will need to roll, and set the curriculum and learning pace coming forwards again, to ensure the prior unstable foundation is stripped down and a new solid one is developed for the future.
Math is difficult because it takes time and energy, and when problems start to develop in the learning process, they can compound to make the entire subject seem impossible. The demands of the Common Core Math program can mean that struggling students are building on only a partial understanding of prior concepts, or left behind altogether. The good news is that the fix is actually pretty simple! Backtracking far enough and filling in the gaps as you return with a professional alongside you is an investment that will set the foundation for you to excel as you progress.