For many students, math (or another “math-heavy field” like computer science, physics, accounting, economics etc.) can be the most intimidating subject in school. Statements like “I’m not some math genius” or “I can’t possibly take that class” can be heard echoing down highschool and college hallways alike, when math class is mentioned.
“I can’t possibly take that class”
Math is different from history or english largely in the way it is expressed. English and history use words. While words can be long and complicated, ultimately they are still words. Words are comfortable; we use them to text our friends, read our favorite blogs, and follow the subtitles in foreign films. Accordingly, when an english or history teacher gives us a uniquely hard article, primary source, or novel, we can feel reassured that at the end of the day this challenging academic obstacle is still made up of words. Math, by contrast, is not built on words but on “notation”: symbols used to count, categorize, and estimate.
Words are comfortable; we use them to text our friends, read our favorite blogs, and follow the subtitles in foreign films.
It is not uncommon for a student to come across a math problem and leave the question blank, in spite of having all the skills needed. When reviewing the problem, the student will often say “I didn’t know that symbol, so I panicked and just skipped it”. This, of course, is not the fault of the student at all. Our mainstream cultural dialogue and academic systems consistently reinforce the idea that math is something extremely difficult reserved for “math geniuses”, and the resulting panic students feel is just a self fulfilling prophecy.
…consistently reinforce the idea that math is something extremely difficult reserved for “math geniuses”, and the resulting panic students feel is just a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Imagine you said, “yes I started reading the chapter, but I saw a word I didn’t know, and I realized there was no way I could read the chapter anymore, so I just went to the next chapter.” You might advise this reader “I’m sure there were lots of other words you knew and maybe you could have even figured out that one word from context.
“yes I started reading the chapter, but I saw a word I didn’t know, and I realized there was no way I could read the chapter anymore, so I just went to the next chapter.”
This same advice can be applied to math. Frequently students will lose 3-5 points (on the math section) simply because a couple of symbols threw them off. Whereas, if you start working on the parts of the questions on which you felt comfortable, you could eliminate a few options or at best figured out (from context) the meaning of the symbol you didn’t understand. Again, no one said this was easy! Diving headfirst into something you think you might “fail at” is strikingly uncomfortable.
This is why we put so much emphasis on the Test Taking Intangible® exercises. Contrary to outdated ideas, the willingness to jump into a question and be ok with not knowing everything, the willingness to let go of perfectionism, and the willingness to try in spite of adversity, is not a fixed personality trait.
…it is consistently clear that the students (known as “math geniuses”) aren’t gifted aliens who don’t make mistakes
It is consistently clear that the students known as “math geniuses” aren’t gifted aliens who don’t make mistakes. Just the contrary, they are willing to make lots of mistakes; they are comfortable approaching a question that seems impossible; they are comfortable improvising when things aren’t going how they planned. For this reason at GRANITE®, we don’t believe in “math geniuses”. There is simply a whole spectrum of students who are more or less confident with uncertainty. Furthermore, this “willingness to embrace uncertainty” is something that can be trained!