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You Can’t Learn Math? I Don’t Believe You.

I suck at math. Really, really suck at it. Eventually, though, I realized for my dream job, I'd have to overcome my avoidance and face the numbers head on.

I’m writing this one day after receiving a failing grade in a math-related course (a 58% on a biostatistics exam, if you care to know the specifics), so I hope you’ll believe me when I say I struggle with math.

Struggle might be an understatement, actually, because I had several panic attacks while studying for and taking this exam. For some reason, my brain’s fight-or-flight instinct kicks in at the sight of Greek letters and terms like “sampling distribution”. Not very useful, evolutionarily, but it is what it is.

Anxiety affects multiple parts of my life, but it’s centered on academics and on math in particular. In fact, math anxiety has its own Wikipedia page (so you know it’s real). It’s an interesting read if you think you may have it, particularly if you want to see how culture and gender affect math performance and anxiety.

For me, it’s not all attributed to anxiety, though. When I was in kindergarten, the teacher asked the class to bring in 100 objects each (I chose small rocks), then place them in ten groups of ten on the classroom floor. My classmates finished in minutes, but I had to stay inside for recess because I simply couldn’t. The teacher thought it was an act of defiance, but I was actually trying; I felt dumber than the box of rocks I brought into class. Ever since, I have felt like I’m chronically several steps behind my peers in math.

Eventually, I learned it’s not that hard to count to ten ten times, but I still came up against seemingly impossible tasks that my peers could do with ease. It wasn’t until about a decade later when I discovered the cause for this problem.

My mind simply does not work in a way conducive to solving math problems. I still have to make an L with my hand to know which way is left. I can barely tell time on an analog clock. I also can’t recognize or remember faces for some reason (I had to stop watching Downton Abbey because I couldn’t tell the difference between the characters). These may not seem related, but all of this points to a learning disability called “dyscalculia”; it’s basically dyslexia, but related to math, direction, and pattern recognition. About 1 in 20 people have it.

This doesn’t mean I can’t learn math, though; it’s just that I learn at a slower pace and in a different way than other students.

When I found my calling in college, I was pretty discouraged when I learned I would have to take several math courses. I was (and still am) very serious about pursuing this path, though, so I have pushed through and, along the way, realized that I can definitely excel in math despite having all the cards stacked against me. So can you, I promise.

Everyone has innate abilities, but you don’t have to (and you shouldn’t) stick to what comes easily. If you do that, then what’s the point of education? How do you even grow? Taking math classes makes me think in ways that aren’t comfortable or natural for me. I spend a lot more time trying to figure out and memorize the exact steps for reaching an answer than many of my classmates do. It’s frustrating, discouraging, and at times, downright embarrassing.

The most important ingredient for overcoming math anxiety and a learning disability, in my experience, is an attitude change.

I spent so much time thinking I couldn’t do it that I stopped putting in the effort. I took the bare minimum for math classes and hoped to never think about parabolas or asymptotes again. Math avoidance is a symptom of the problem, but it also exacerbates it like hell. It’s a pretty harmful feedback loop.

For me, the attitude change came practically overnight. I had already realized through other courses that I had the potential to be a great student, so when I found out I needed to take more math, I dug deep to find more of that academic confidence. I’m sure this is different for everyone (just as learning disabilities and anxiety are different for everyone), but looking at myself differently worked for me. Envision yourself as a successful math student and you’re on your way to making that true.

You also need to create your own definition of success. As confident as I felt going into math-intensive classes (like biostatistics), confidence plus hard work does not always equal a perfect grade (like, ahem, in biostatistics). You might have to accept that you’ll get some crappy grades. This is the hardest part for me, but I’ve learned to accept that simply learning something or improving is a form of success. I might not be going at the same pace as my classmates, but I’m still making some type of progress. I got a 58%, which means I understood over half of the material on the exam. It’s more than I knew before taking the class.

Sometimes, you also need to be your own advocate. People struggle with math for many reasons: math anxiety, dyscalculia, or simply finding it difficult. Whether you have an issue that’s diagnosed or not, you should speak up about how you’re feeling in the class.

If you have a learning disability or anxiety (diagnosed or not), find the person or department at your school responsible for students like you. They can help you with special accommodations or may even be able to test for and diagnose your issue. Admittedly, I am just now starting to seek out extra help. I should have done it years ago!

If your issue isn’t disability-related, it might be helpful still for you to talk with your teacher. Introduce yourself at the outset of the semester and let them know that math is a struggle for you. They’ll appreciate your openness and may be able to suggest alternative study methods or tutors.

I never thought I would have this viewpoint about math or be able to find any enjoyment in learning it, but I absolutely proved myself wrong. In fact, I think my struggle with math is the reason I will eventually succeed: I am just that determined to learn it.

Maybe your success in learning math will not come in spite of your difficulties, but because of the motivation they gave you.

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About the Author

Natalee Desotell

Natalee graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2013 with a triple major in Political Science, International Politics & Economics, Languages & Cultures of Asia, and a minor in Global Public Health. After a couple years in the working world, she recently returned to her alma mater to study Cartography and Geographical Information Systems. A self-proclaimed public health nerd, her dream job is to communicate epidemiological information visually through beautiful interactive maps and graphics. She enjoys iced black coffee, punk rock music, and surprising people.