Hey there! Are you asking yourself this question as you pore over your math homework, or try to parse a textbook written before your parents were born? If you catch yourself thinking, ‘Why do I struggle with math so much?’, you aren’t alone! Math is hard. Even students with an inborn talent for mathematics and all things numerical are bound to come across a wall at some point.
So what makes math so hard? Let’s take a look…
What Makes Math Harder Than Other Subjects?
Why is math a difficult subject? There are a couple reasons. First and foremost, math takes work. From the time when we were adding numbers by counting on our fingers, math required brain power and effort. The bulk of math is application — math tests rarely require you to spit out definitions of terms. Instead, you are expected to use those definitions to solve problems.
Furthermore, math is an objective study. It’s real, and there really is a right or wrong answer. This makes math pleasing and simple at times — no ‘almost’, no comparisons — but it also makes it difficult when you can’t seem to work your way around to that right answer.
Additionally, after about fifth grade, math becomes theoretical. You can’t grasp hold of negative numbers in the literal sense, and working with imaginary numbers complicates things further. This requires your brain to make a jump into the land of the theoretical, which can be challenging for anyone.
Common Reasons Students Struggle with Math
There are a lot of reasons students struggle with math. Math woes — you could even call it dyscalculia — can begin as early as elementary school. Why? First, students are wont to pick up the attitudes of their teachers, even subliminally, and there are plenty of teachers who don’t like math. There are other psychological elements to consider, too. Students who do poorly in math at an early age can begin to think of themselves as ‘bad at math,’ and resist dealing with math at all. This negative self-image can dog students into middle and even high school — and can even affect their career choices far down the line.
Another factor to consider is that math is cumulative. That is to say, math builds on itself. If a student is left behind during one unit, they don’t have the tools they need to properly learn the next unit, and the next. This can happen over long time periods as well. For example, a student can pass algebra without fully understanding the concepts, and this lack of understanding would make precalculus a very challenging class indeed.
How can we fix this? Read on to find techniques for making math easier.
Why do Students Struggle with Math?
One more reason students frequently struggle with math lies with the way math is taught. Math is complicated, and civilizations have developed ways of dealing with it. One example is the Arabic numeral system — it is far easier to do multiplication using Arabic numerals than it is with Roman numerals.
Humans have likewise developed techniques for calculation, from using borrowing in long subtraction, to the complicated process of long division, to the shortcut for finding derivatives. These techniques are useful and efficient — but when they are taught without a thorough explanation of why they work, students lose key understanding of what is really going on. It’s easy to see math as magic, a conglomeration of rules one must memorize, instead of a system where everything can be proven.
Also, there is a common culture that math doesn’t matter. “Why is math so important? I’m never going to use algebra after this.” This encourages students to slack off — but doing so can lead to more work down the line. Many students wish to pursue STEM majors — that is, majors in science, technology, engineering, or math — without realizing that the former three all require math. Some universities require a certain level of math to apply, although this is more common in the United Kingdom than the United States.
How Can You Make Math Easier?
If you are struggling with math, never fear! There are lots of ways to make math easier.
Make sure you understand the content. Maybe this goes without saying, but understanding really does help. After a lesson, summarize the key equations or takeaways to yourself. Do you understand them all? If not, ask a friend, or go to the professor after class.
Review. Most math classes assign nightly or weekly homework, which provides great review! Going over concepts again after some time has passed cements what you have learned into your long-term knowledge bank. Even if you don’t get a lot of points for homework, doing homework will earn you more points on your tests and quizzes — and it will mean less review work later on!
Check your answers. Practicing the wrong way never helps, so it’s good to be able to check your answers at the end of each problem or problem set, so that you can see if you are doing the right thing. Some math teachers provide answer keys to go along with problem sets; some don’t. If you are working from a textbook, however, the answers are definitely online. Don’t look at them beforehand! Work through the problem on your own, then check to see that you’ve done it the correct way.
De-mystify. Don’t understand where a rule or equation comes from? There are usually explanations in the textbook, along with proofs. These take a bit of time to go through, but once you understand a concept once, it will stick with you.
Prove everything. Or at least everything you can. Forgot the quadratic formula? You can work your way there using Ax2 + Bx + C = 0. Just tediously re-arrange the equation — it takes a bit of time, but once you’re through, you know it’s true!
Be systematic. When solving a problem, write down every step that you take, even if it means a lot of re-writing. This way you can look back and see your process, and pinpoint where you make mistakes. Also, being organized this way generally makes students less likely to forget a number or a minus sign.
Sanity check. Look at your final answer. Is it a value that makes sense? If your answer seems to be an order of ten too high or too low, look over your work.
Organize your notes. Math classes tend to be full of example problems during lecture, which can lead to messy, work-strewn notebooks. That’s fine! But highlighting your key equations can make them easier to find later on. Creating a ‘cheat sheet’ with important values and equations at the front of your notebook can also be helpful.
Check your units. This one also applies to science classes with math. Units can get confusing quickly, so it’s best practice to work out your unit conversions before you go through the actual values. For example, if you are trying to estimate the cost of a road trip, you would want to write out the equations before hand, like so:
$ = ( $ / gallon)*(gallons / mile )*( miles of your road trip)
You can see how there are gallons in the numerator and in the denominator, so they cancel out. Likewise miles cancel, leaving you with a dollar value. After setting up this equation, with appropriate conversions such as $3.50 / gallon, or 1 gallon / 25 miles, you can insert the actual number of miles and come up with a cost.
This is especially useful for physics and chemistry, where units get far more complicated.
Graphs are your friend. A lot of people struggle with graphs — drawing them, making them pretty, and analyzing how lines behave. That’s perfectly normal. However, the higher math classes you take, the more you are likely to interact with graphs. Calculus, after all, is all about analyzing how functions work — and functions appear on graphs as lines.
So how can you master graphs? Get used to sketching lines, so that you become familiar with the shape of certain functions. There are infinite variations, but a small amount of common shapes — anything where the highest x value is x2, for example, will make a U-shape.
Get help. Some teachers give office hours before or after school, or during lunch, and schools can offer interventions for struggling math students, such as study sessions, or by connecting you with a student who has taken your class before. If you are struggling, it is smart to get help!
What is the Hardest Math Class?
Harvard prides itself on having a class that moves quickly and gives lots of homework, but any math class can be the ‘hardest’ one you’ve experienced if the content is taught very quickly or poorly, or the workload is overwhelming.
The hardest math class in terms of content is, in fact, equally subjective. Some students taut calculus as being extremely challenging, and would point to multivariable calc or vector calc as being some of the hardest classes out there. Other students would say that higher-level algebra classes, in which everything gets more and more theoretical and proof-reliant, are truly the hardest.
And what about the hardest math class you are likely to face in high school? There are few math APs out there: it’s limited to Calculus AB, Calculus BC, and Statistics. Of these, BC is more challenging than AB — the ‘C’ coursework is mostly real-world application of integrals, as well as sequences and series. It would be fair to say that for most students, Calculus BC is the hardest course you will take in high school.
However, for those who fear social science far more than hard science, AP Statistics is its own beast (read our top AP Stats tips here). The nature of statistics is very different than calculus (check out our tips on Calculus here), and relies far more on modeling data than interpreting graphs. For some, this is easier, since there are no derivatives or integrals to deal with. For others, it is harder, because many of the models have been derived from data analysis and cannot be proven.
Another contender, which is not a math class at all, is Physics C. The ‘C’ stands for calculus based, and while the class focuses on physics concepts, there is a lot of calculus involved — especially around gravitation between planets and rotational motion, which many students regard with a mix of distaste and fear. It is generally required that students who take Physics C have already taken a calculus class, or are at least taking one concurrently. The Physics C course does not teach calculus, but applies it in more complex situations than are studied in Calculus BC.
What is the hardest math course you have taken so far? Do you prefer application to real world situations, or do you glory in pure equations? Which of these classes would you most like to take?
How Difficult is it to Get a Math Degree?
The cool thing about math degrees? Sometimes they require fewer classes. Nowadays you’ll still have to take general education requirements to fill out your schedule, but it’s not uncommon for the number of required classes for a math major to be slightly lower than average.
That doesn’t make a math degree easy, of course — you still have to take the coursework. But acquiring a math degree is not any more unlikely or challenging than most other degrees, and it takes a good deal less time than some engineering and astrophysics tracks.
The other cool thing about math degrees? Most coding jobs nowadays require not computer science degrees, but what are known as ‘technical degrees.’ Technical degree is an umbrella term for a number of different degrees, particularly computer science, computer engineering, and — you guessed it — math. (Applied math, to be precise, but pure math majors should also be able to get hired). We all know how much the computer science industry is expanding, and how lucrative are positions at the big tech companies. A math degree can get you there!
Wrapping Things Up: Why is Math So Hard?
In summary, it isn’t your imagination: math is really hard. But that doesn’t mean you aren’t up to the task! With a little grunt work and practice, you can become well-versed in the most challenging math classes out there.
Math is challenging because it is cumulative, and because it requires a lot of effort on the part of students. If you fall behind, it can feel very difficult to catch up, and it’s hard to learn new subject material when you’re building on a shaky foundation. However, if you go back and ensure you understand previous concepts, you should be ready to learn more. Once you’re up to speed, it’s easier to build on what you know and flourish!
Some quick tips for making math easy are to be organized, get help when you need it, and to practice, practice, practice! The numbers will become clear under your pencil tip before you know it!
If you found this post helpful, read our other high school study tips here.