The question “why is math so hard?” is one we come across so often with the parents and students we work with, it’s become almost a given. We hear things like:
“My son just doesn’t seem to ‘take’ to math. He’s just like his mom.”
“Why is it that even when my daughter really ‘buckles down’ and tries to catch up in Algebra, she still does poorly on quizzes and exams? But then she can turn around, spend a weekend with her history textbook, and ace her essays and tests?”
“It seems like ever since they started algebra, he’s been struggling and hasn’t been able to ‘get it’ no matter how hard he tries.”
But what most people don’t realize is, although math may present some specific difficulties for some children, most of these questions aren’t actually about math at all, but rather any of the school subjects that build on each other cumulatively.
For many students, the pandemic has deepened existing learning gaps, specifically with subjects like math that require cumulative knowledge. A 2021 study by McKinsey & Co. found students four months behind in math compared with pre-pandemic standardized test results.
With classes, where each topic builds on the last (like layering bricks), they’re very unforgiving if your child starts to fall behind. And if you’re not on top of it, a “C” on a quiz or two can quickly snowball into a string of C’s on their next report card, or more importantly, a lack of understanding of those topics and a permanent aversion towards them for the rest of their time in school.
Now don’t worry, it’s not all gloom and doom if your child finds themselves behind in these subjects. In this post we’ll cover exactly which subjects you do need to watch out for, how to know when your child is truly struggling, and when you should step in to get them some extra help.
Why is math so hard? What do most people think the problem is (and what’s really going on)
When a student continues to struggle in a complex, cumulative topic like math, language, or some of the more advanced sciences (physics, chemistry), we tend to think a few things right off the bat:
- Maybe they just don’t have the “math gene.” I certainly didn’t
- Maybe their teacher is just going too fast for them
- Maybe they’re just more “right-brained” and don’t find math or science interesting
And to some extent, those things can be true.
Gallup conducted a poll that showed math as the subject students found the least interesting and most challenging across the board. These students found math to be the least intrinsically motivating, either because they never found it interesting to begin with, or because they developed that attitude over time.
But apart from genetic pre-dispositions, which may preclude students from pursuing a career as a mathematician or Ph.D. chemist, most likely this lack of interest and motivation is coming from somewhere else. Let’s dig a little deeper.
The Swiss Cheese Problem
It was 1983, and there I was sitting in my 8th grade algebra class at Hoover Middle School in Indialantic, Florida. I look up at the board and I see yet another equation, and my neck starts to get stiff, and my shoulders get tense, and I thought to myself:
“I’m never going to learn this”
But I really wanted to. I was sitting in the front row of the class, talking myself into learning. However, inevitably within a few minutes, I was off daydreaming about something else as my teacher droned on and on and on.
And when I would go home to do my homework, I didn’t really know what I was doing. It started off where I would do most of it, but maybe leave a few questions blank. But then slowly but surely that turned into: I only did about half of the homework questions. And then after a few weeks, not much of it at all.
And what happens when you aren’t really doing the homework?
(1) You don’t get any of the extra practice, which means
(2) You don’t know what’s going on in class the next day when you move on to more complicated problems, which means
(3) You’re even further behind when you go to do the next set of homework problems…
And on, and on, until that unit test grade smacks you in the face with a C or a D, and your motivation continues to dwindle.
This was all a complete surprise to my parents and teachers because for all intents and purposes I was the model student. I always came to class, sat in the front, and acted as though I was paying attention.
But behind the scenes, my understanding of what was going on in these cumulative classes looked more like “Swiss Cheese:” I had some of the pieces put together, enough to struggle through at first. But there were holes in my learning and those accumulate over time.
This was my issue with math, and it’s the same issue we see over and over with the students that we help.
School subjects that are cumulative are like building a brick wall
Math, the languages, and many of the sciences are cumulative: if you don’t learn the fundamentals, you’ll continue to be more and more confused, and fall further and further behind as the class progresses forward.
This was my problem in algebra class. But you can see this problem happening with far earlier than that. Take fractions, for example.
If your child has difficulty understanding fractions, they may be able to remember a few simple concepts like:
1/4 = 2/8 or 1/6 + 5/6 = 1
But if when it comes to adding fractions with different denominator (e.g. 1/4 + 2/7) they don’t grasp the method, then what happens when they get to more complicated arithmetic problems like this:
102/7 + 25/4
A gap in understanding appears. This is something our tutors are noticing daily after students spent a prolonged period of time in virtual classes.
As these gaps accumulate, it becomes harder and harder to fill them in, and more unlikely that you will be able to fully grasp algebra or calculus later on. If a student becomes discouraged at an early age and it is not remediated quickly, then it is probably that the student will become disillusioned with the subject entirely.
It’s like building a brick wall: if your foundation is weak, whatever you stack on top of it is going to be unstable, and quickly be reduced to rubble if put under scrutiny.
Cumulative vs. non-cumulative school subjects
Now the story can be much different for subjects like english and history. If your son or daughter struggles with the “Hamlet” unit in english class, or misses class during “Roman Empire” unit in world history, they may end up with a few poor grades on some essays and a unit test, but beyond that it’s relatively straightforward to recover.
You figure out what they did wrong, why they missed what they missed, and approach the next topic with a renewed study strategy. These non-cumulative subjects are much less “dangerous” to fall behind in, because a short-term concerted effort can recover much of what was lost during the period they missed.
Here’s a quick breakdown of which subjects fit into which category:
|Subject Type||Subjects||If they fall behind…|
|Non-cumulative||English, Reading, Social Studies/History, Earth Science, Biology||Pay attention, use questions and reminders to guide them in the right direction, but no need to immediately step in. Unless they repeatedly struggle, or show aversion to multiple different topics, books, or units some gentle guidance and suggestions should be enough to ensure they get back on track.|
|Cumulative||All Math classes (Arithmetic, Geometry, Pre-Algebra, Algebra, Calculus, Statistics, etc.), All Foreign Languages (Spanish, French, German, Latin, etc.), Chemistry, Physics||If they show any signs of multiple poor grades in a row, uncharacteristically low grades, a big unit test failure, or an aversion to the subject, take action now to either step in yourself or hire a tutor to help them catch up as quickly as possible.
Other potential signs include: when they don’t want to show you the homework portal or say they don’t have homework in that class, or you suggest they go see the teacher and they refuse to.
Now the real question becomes: what do we do about it?
Step 1: Are they really falling behind, or just temporarily struggling?
Now how do we know whether our kids are actually starting to slip in class, or whether they just had a bad week or two that led to some uncharacteristic grades? When do we need to think about stepping in?
The good thing is, like we briefly summarized in the table above, there are some telltale signs that indicate whether or not your child is falling behind in one of these cumulative subjects.
You probably DON’T need to step in yet if they:
- Had one or two low homework or quiz grades, but then quickly recovered (still pay attention though)
- Came home with an out-of-the-ordinary test grade with a clear cause you can point to unrelated to their understanding of the material (e.g. a stupid mistake, were sick when they took the test, etc.)
- Are having trouble with one or two specific concepts, but are open to help and willing to work through it
You probably DO need to step in a get some extra help if they:
- Come home with a string of low grades on quizzes and assignments
- Bomb a unit test or come home with a highly uncharacteristic grade
- Are spending an inordinate amount of time studying each night with no improvement in grades
- Seem “down” about the subject or aversive to studying it
- Say they don’t have homework or studying for that class
- Don’t want to go see the teacher if you suggest it
You know your kid best, so use these guidelines and your best judgement to evaluate whether they’re having real trouble or are just going through a temporary sticking point. And if you do suspect something is up, it may be worthwhile to have a brief dialogue with their teacher to see what they say about their performance in class.
Step 2: How to help them “catch up” in cumulative school subjects
Once you have recognized that your child is struggling, there are two paths you can take: either (1) step in to help yourself and work with them and their teacher to get them back on track, or (2) hire a tutor to help them “fill in the gaps,” rebuild their foundation in that course, and get them confident and motivated to keep up during class again.
Steps you can take as a parent
The first thing you can do in the case of a poor test grade, is to help them take advantage of the retake policy if the teacher has one. If your child isn’t making test corrections or letting you know about a chance to retake the test, it’s a good sign they’re feeling defeating. So take this opportunity to discuss options with their teacher and see if there’s still a chance for kid to retake test.
Second, kids are usually afraid of rejection and typically won’t be willing to write the teacher an email with a question or an ask for help. So sit with them and help them write out an email to their teacher:
“Hi Mrs. Smith,
I’m working on my homework due this Tuesday and I’m really not understanding how to use the Pythagorean Theorem. Can I stop by after class tomorrow to ask you about it?”
Most of the time just writing and sending that one email will lift a huge load off of their shoulders, especially when they realize their teacher is most likely going to be very receptive to helping them out.
Third, see if they can attend study hall after school and sit in the classroom with their teacher while they do their homework. Inevitably they’ll end up asking for help with problems they’re stuck on and feel more comfortable doing so with their teacher in the room without the pressure of their classmates present. This will help them get in the routine of asking for help when they need it without feeling embarrassed.
Steps you can take with a tutor
Although many parents are fully equipped to help their children with homework and studying, a tutor is, in the large majority of cases, are more effective means for getting your child back up to speed in a subject like math or foreign language if for no other reason than: they’re a new face and an outside voice with less “stake” in the game.
Additionally, if a tutor really knows what they’re doing, they’ll be able to diagnose where your child is struggling, and take progressive steps to close those subject gaps, catch them up, and build up their ability to keep up with the new material. Here’s for example, what our tutors will generally do:
- Assess where the student is right now, and identify any gaps in the fundamentals that will need to be addressed right off the bat.
- Build an execute a plan to fill those holes in understanding and re-teach that material expediently so that the child still has time left over to work on the current work going on in class.
- Spend additional time helping them through their homework, and helping them prepare for upcoming quizzes and tests. Because the worst thing that can happen is to have them continue to lose ground and lose confidence as they go back to the basics and try to re-learn older material.
- Once the student has started to master the old material they missed out on, then ideally the tutor will have them start to preview what they’ll see next so that they feel more motivated and focused by the time they get to school and take on that topic during class. This is much more powerful than remediation alone, and will improve grades and confidence more than simply reviewing and correcting material after the fact.
- Work with the student to take practice tests ahead of their actual exams. In general, kids who perform poorly in specific subjects like math tend to have a very inaccurate idea of how much they actually know. Tutors can create and administer practice tests to both help students identify where they still need work, and also to prepare for the pressures of solving problems within the testing format and timeframe.
Whether you decide to step in yourself first, or move forward with a subject tutor for your child, the most important thing is to work quickly to get them moving in the right direction.
If you’ve done the work to identify that they’re really struggling, further delay will only make things worse. So put together a plan, and start working towards stopping the cumulative snowball effect from progressing any farther.
If you think tutoring may be the best option to get your child back on track, we’ll be happy to walk you through some options.