What it feels like to be bad at math

Every math teacher should understand What It Feels Like to Be Bad at Math, writes Ben Orlin on Math with Bad Drawings.

As a math teacher, it’s easy to get frustrated with struggling students. They miss class. They procrastinate. When you take away their calculators, they moan like children who’ve lost their teddy bears. (Admittedly, a trauma.)

Even worse is what they don’t do. Ask questions. Take notes. Correct failing quizzes, even when promised that corrections will raise their scores. Don’t they care that they’re failing? Are they trying not to pass?

Because of his experience with mathematical failure, Orlin understands why his students don’t ask for help. “Math makes people feel stupid. It hurts to feel stupid.”

7 - Symptoms (smaller)

Orlin excelled as a math major at Yale –until he took topology in his senior year.

My failure began as most do: gradually, quietly. I took dutiful notes from my classmates’ lectures, but felt only a hazy half-comprehension. While I could parrot back key phrases, I felt a sense of vagueness, a slight disconnect – I knew I was missing things, but didn’t know quite what, and I clung to the idle hope that one good jolt might shake all the pieces into place.

But I didn’t seek out that jolt. In fact, I never asked for help. (Too scared of looking stupid.)

He copied his girlfriend’s homework. He procrastinated. He blamed others. He panicked. He exhibited “every symptom that I now see in my own students,” he writes. He managed to pass the course, but recalling the experience is still painful.

About Joanne


  1. I think the problem goes all the way back to kindergarten; a combination of bad curriculum and ineffective instruction from teachers who don’t know much math and don’t like it. Higher math is one thing, but most people of close-to-average ability can master basic arithmetic, algebra 1 and basic geometry, if properly taught from a good curriculum.

    It’s exacerbated by the unfortunate fact that it’s socially acceptable to be “bad at math”; few people would feel equally comfortable admitting that they are “bad at reading”, even if they are.

    • The bigger problem is that US culture views being “good” or “bad” at math as an innate characteristic that individuals have no control over.

      • Stacy in NJ says:

        Yes, this. And also schools don’t honestly assess performance and then place kids appropriate to ability. They need to do a much better job addressing holes in learning early on before they snowball.

        • momof4 says:

          That’s heresy; all kids can learn the same things, taught the same way, in the same amount of time, while sitting in the same room.

      • Yes, I’ve read studies that American kids’ reaction to a poor grade is “I’m bad at math” while Asian kids’ reaction is “I didn’t study hard enough”.

        • I’d agree with the first poster. The reason why many kids who are ‘bad’ at math were not properly brought up with math in the home (through counting games, fractions (the old plastic pizza comes to mind), or by cutting a fruit into sections, etc.

          Add to that fact that many elementary school teachers do not have strong backgrounds in math, and that the overuse of the infamous calculator has actually ruined the ability to look at a math problem and solve it.

          Pushing buttons on a calculator and ‘perhaps’ getting the correct answer does not make one good at math. You only get ‘good’ at math by endless practice of basic math skills and by extension, more complex problems.

      • I think that’s exactly right.

  2. Wish mom used at least 25% of the tiger mom approach…

  3. The point of the article generalizes. Try take a language course if you don’t learn languages easily. Or try learn to play violin is you’re tone-deaf.
    Gina Carano says everybody should get punched in the face from time to time, just to wake us up.

  4. Fine and dandy that the author ‘understands’. When is he going to do something about it, ya’ know, what we used to call ‘teach’, rather than spend his time on emotions and waiting for the students to ‘ask for help’? Will he try one day to teach his students how to study mathematics? How about using a formative assessment to guide the depth and pacing of his presentation? Or will he just continue to spout sympathetic words, present the material, and pass the students on?

  5. I wonder how much of this is just simple enculturation? I don’t remember nearly this much handwringing about math being so universally hard (particularly for girls) when I was a kid, back in the 1960’s. Math was just another subject then; some were better at it than others. My high school calculus class (arguably made up of the best math learners in our cohort) was pretty close to half girls and half boys. Maybe I was just clueless, but I don’t remember that being remarkable in any way.

    I don’t remember my parents doing any significant math at home, but I DO remember them telling me over and over, “you can learn anything you put your mind to.”

    I think the change is in the culture, not the kids.

    • momof4 says:

      Yes, I agree that the culture has changed; sustained attention and persistence is no longer expected or required. “Learning” is supposed to be both easy and fun, all the time; it’s a “natural” phenomenon. Of course, it really isn’t; it took humans millions of years to develop written language and mathematics.

      The other thing that has changed is the math curriculum in ES-MS. The traditional, sequential, mastery-based curriculum has been replaced with various “spiral” curricula (Everyday Math, Trailblazers etc), which do not require mastery of the fundamental facts or algorithms. Most kids will not have the preparation for real HS math, unless they get it at home (parents, tutors, Kumon etc) because the schools have decided the appearance of learning and equal outcomes for all kids is more important than insisting on mastery, which will not produce equal outcomes. When I read that the spiral curricula had been designed specifically for the full-inclusion classroom, they made more sense. Unfortunately, they do not prepare kids, even very able kids, for higher mathematics.

    • Mark Roulo says:

      I think we are also trying to get more kids through more math. To illustrate (but not prove) this, in 1958 Life Magazine ran a 5 part series of articles on the sad state of US Education. One of the articles was a compare and contrast of a US high school student with a Soviet high school student. The US high school student was a high school junior taking … geometry. And the article mentioned that he was on the academic track and hoped to go to college. If college bound kids were taking geometry in 11th grade, it isn’t to hard to figure out that the non-college bound kids weren’t taking algebra in 8th grade 🙂 Which we have been pushing for a while now.


      High schools used to have this thing called “business math” and I believe that lots of kids took it. Today we try to get *everyone* through Algebra, Geometry, and Algebra II.


      There is a *huge* qualitative jump between arithmetic (adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing) even with fractions and algebra. The jump is that up until algebra, the procedures are decision-less (or can be). You multiply all N-digit by M-digit number problems exactly the same way … you just have more steps for larger numbers.


      Evaluating an algebra expression isn’t this straightforward. You have a collection of techniques that you can apply and part of getting good is developing a sense of when to apply the various techniques.


      So … back in the 19-whatevers (pre-new math), we did two things differently:
         *) We’d drill the kids on the basic arithmetic algorithms until they knew them, and
         *) Kids who struggled with abstract math like algebra got assigned to less abstract classes.


      Today we drill less and try to get more kids through the harder more abstract math courses. Bad day all around.

      • … the procedures are decision-less …

        AaHA! The procedures ARE decision-less. Too bad that we don’t teach the procedures as rigorously, that we emphasize discovery and multiple representations as a path to “knowledge”.

        Rob: Back in the 1960’s it was OK to have disparate outcomes; now; not so much. Those that didn’t “get it” were tracked into less abstract work.

        Now, on top of that, we have had cultural changes where people blatantly proclaim their math phobia and ignorance; heaven forbid if you can’t write a coherent paragraph and try to get away with it. Of course, literacy and writing skills have slid a bit too.

        I’m sure people have been saying this since right before erosion started; or at least since the satires of Juvenal.