Why Is Math So Hard For Students

If you’re a parent, hearing your child say they hate math, that math is too hard for them or, worse, that they’re simply not good at it can be both heartbreaking and concerning. 

After all, as just about every news article these days seems to remind us, math is a hugely important subject and skill at math seems to be a strong predictor for future success

In recent years, there has been a strong push across the educational world, both in traditional classrooms as well as homeschools, to try and get students to be more confident math learners. 

Yet, despite the plethora of programs, activities, games and supplements that have popped up, quite a few students still consider math to be a tough, anxiety-inducing subject. 

But why is that?

It’s Cumulative 

Math is a bit unlike just about any other subject at the K-12 level in that its skills and knowledge are built upon one another year after year. 

That is, the fundamentals of math are taught early on and tend to form the basis for much of what follows. 

Basic number identification and numeracy, for example, leads to basic operations (adding, subtracting, dividing and so on), as well as the introduction of fractions and decimals, which together then go on to be the bread and butter of more complex operations. 

As a demonstration of this, consider this algebraic problem that might be found in Algebra 2

15 – 4X = 2(3x+1)

To solve this, a student has to:

  • Recognize the numbers involved
  • Recognize the sides of an equation
  • Identify the kind of problem they’re being asked to solve
  • Remember the procedure for solving an algebraic problem
  • Understand that they’ll need to use addition, subtraction, multiplication and division
  • Remember PEMDAS (or BEDMAS)
  • Be able to actively and accurately use PEMDAS, addition, subtraction, multiplication and division on their own
  • Be able to convert the remaining improper fraction into a decimal for simplicity
  • And more

That’s putting into play a lot of different skills that a student will have probably learned over the course of their pre-school, elementary school and middle school years.

Problem is, if a student has not mastered those skills and has some small knowledge or skill gaps that still exist the whole approach begins to fall apart and mistakes start to quickly add up.

As a result, students often end up with the wrong answer (or getting lost completely) and can become extremely frustrated and/or anxious as a result. 

Making it even harder is that skill gaps are often very hard to detect, especially when students have gotten to the point where they are attempting complex multi step problems that involve a lot of different skills put together. 

It Requires Lots Of Practice And That Practice Can Be Different From Most Subjects

Unlike many other subjects, with math students need to both learn a concept fully and develop skill fluency, i.e. they need to learn to use the math they’re learning about to quickly and accurately solve problem sets, word problems and puzzles.  

It’s not enough for a student to simply learn or memorize an formula or algorithm for approaching a certain type of problem (“when confronted with X use this formula”), they’ll actually have to master when, where and how to use it and do so smoothly and without making too many mistakes or hesitating too much along the way.

And they’ll have to do so when a problem has been differently set up, written in word form, or even if its information has been scrambled a little bit. 

The only way to do so in most cases is to do math problems.

Lots of math problems.

And a good variety of math problems, some focused and simple and others complex or tricky.

How much practice a student needs really depends on the student…and admittedly not every student really needs to endlessly drill to develop skill fluency. 

But in general it is only through good, dedicated practice that a student really becomes comfortable at identifying, setting up and correctly executing a particular math strategy even when presented with novel or unusual math problems (such as those usually given on math exams).

This can be a particular issue for students who learn very quickly in general and/or have excellent memories.

Such students may easily pick up the function and purpose of a particular formula or math strategy once it’s introduced to them and feel like they’ve “learned it,” but may struggle when presented with more complex or unusual applications of it. 

An Overreliance On Rote Memorization, Facts And Drill

Although it’s becoming less common, some math programs do offer a lot of practice but rely a little too heavily on having students memorize math facts and practice them with straight computational problems and word problems. 

While these can be a good way to make sure that students are capable of answering questions correctly and speedily, it can become an issue if problem sets become more complex or unusual and don’t look like the problem sets the student has completed in the past.

In such situations, a student may have trouble figuring out how to specifically apply the math facts and methods they have learned and their finely-honed practice skills may suddenly seem non-applicable.

If a student hasn’t learned the logic behind the concepts and has not been taught how to sequentially reason through problems and that it is okay to use different strategies to get an answer, they can find such problems overly difficult or even insurmountable. 

It Can Be Quite Abstract

Another difficulty students can have with math is that many of its concepts can be fairly abstract, with real life objects and ideas being represented by symbols and equations.

picture of math book showing abstract equations of math

While this isn’t usually a problem for older students, those under 12 can often have a hard time with abstract concepts, with their thinking and reasoning more related to things they can see, hear and touch (i.e. concrete phenomena).

As many fundamental skills in math are being developed around this age, if math is presented in a way kids readily understand and absorb it can impact their future success. 

The Way It’s Taught May Not Fit How A Student Learns Best

Math can be taught in many different ways. 

Broadly speaking there are conceptual math programs, which tend to focus more on explain why math formulas, concepts and algorithms do what they do, and there are traditional, procedural programs, which focus more on teaching students specific methods of solving problems. 

Within these programs, too, are a variety of ways in which a math curriculum can present the material. 

Math concepts can be introduced in a straight lecture format, as a hands-on demonstration, with multimedia tools, with literature or readings, as part of a larger problem to solve or project to complete.

Every student is different and introducing material in a way that students find enjoyable, exciting and/or engaging can have a dramatic effect on both understanding and retention. 

Dyscalculia, ADD/ADHD And Other Learning Difficulties 

Sometimes a student may have a learning disability that makes it hard for them to learn math. 

For example, just like how dyslexia can affect a student’s ability to read and understand text, dyscalculia can make it hard for individuals to understand and process numbers and numerical operations, with sequencing, with time, with spatial awareness and manipulation, with physical measurements and so on. 

As another example, students with difficulties in maintaining attention can have a hard time concentrating in class, concentrating throughout a long exercise and in precisely following steps, resulting in poorer performance. 

Should a parent suspect that their student has a learning difficulty they should contact their school and their child’s doctor as soon as possible. 

Math should never be seen by any student as an insurmountable challenge and these days most schools are aware of learning difficulties and neurodivergence and tend to have accommodations and programs to help students get the extra help they need to succeed and even thrive.  

Preconceived Notions About Math Influence Its Perception

A student’s perception of math and, in particular, their own ability to do math can have a strong effect on their learning outcomes and their desire to do math in the future.

Kids are surprisingly perceptive and susceptible to the influence of role models or outcomes in the future., and hearing their parents or siblings complain about math being hard or boring as a subject or discipline can lead to negative perceptions or anxiety later on.

Similarly, if a student has come to believe that they themselves are “bad at math,” it can become something of a self-fulfilling prophecy with students tuning out or becoming accepting of poor outcomes and putting out less remediation effort as a result. 

What Parents Can Do To Help

Consider Another Way of Teaching

One way in which homeschooling parents have a distinct advantage over parents with students in a traditional classroom is that they have a far greater say over their child’s math curriculum and how information is presented and practiced. 

If a parent is feeling that their child isn’t “getting it” or is struggling in some way with one math program, they are free to modify it, add to it or simply find and use another curriculum altogether.

And, as we’ve laid out in previous articles, there are a ton of different homeschool math curriculum options and supplements out there with a wide variety of approaches and methods for teaching that parents can use. 

These run the gamut from gentle programs that move at a slower, gentler pace, highly visual and interactive programs, project-based learning curricula, multimedia-rich programs, and those that use a large number of activities and tactile learning methods.

Sometimes simply by seeing things in a different light, or explaining information in another way, can make all the difference for a student and things can suddenly make sense for them.

Find a Tutor to Help Personalize Learning

Parents who find that their student has a number of skill or knowledge gaps to coles or otherwise feel that a student is having a hard time absorbing math concepts from their lessons may benefit from more individualized instruction. 

Whether online or in-person,in our experience a good math tutor can assess a student’s strengths and weaknesses in math relative to their grade and can provide custom and personalized lessons to help hone their skills and catch up.

More than that, a good tutor may also encourage a student in math and help build up their self-image, shifting them away from a general fear of math or personal feelings to focus on specific, achievable and measurable goals they can work on to be better at math.

Bring Abstract Concepts To Life

One of the ways that helped the Singapore public primary school system transform into an international math powerhouse was in the realization that younger children really benefit when eased into abstract concepts.

Thus, a cornerstone of their learning, and that of programs based on the Singapore method (such as Math in Focus for example), is called the concrete-pictorial-abstract (CPA) approach. 

In this approach, students are first introduced to math concepts with things they can more readily understand by handling and seeing it, such as with a manipulative, game or other kind of physical item. 

picture of math in focus textbook using a game to introduce concepts

Parents and teachers can then shift to a visual representation, like a drawing or a picture equation, before finally moving on to using traditional symbols and equations. 

picture of math in focus using visual approach to teach math

In this way, learning is inherently multisensory and offers students a lot of different ways of understanding, experiencing and looking at a math concept before starting to use it in its most formal presentation. 

While certainly a powerful and proven approach, parents and teachers don’t even need to change their overall approach to teaching in order to help struggling students understand abstract concepts. 

There are a great number of math manipulatives and active learning solutions out there that can give students a more 3D and tactile understanding of what they are learning, as well as provide them with a different and often more intuitive way of looking at or working with math concepts.

example of hands-on learning approach in math addition

Although many parents dismiss manipulatives as the domain of basic counting blocks and number tiles, they actually can be used to help demonstrate math at higher grade levels, such as with algebra tiles, coordinate pegboards, multi-pan balances, visual protractors and more. 

Those who aren’t necessarily fans of hands-on learning, might instead try to bring math concepts to life through physical games, activities and demonstrations of math’s use in the real world.

Baking or cooking activities can be used as a more intuitive way of using algebra to understand how to find correct combinations of ingredients, for example. 

Calculating angles and trajectories, meanwhile, can be made a lot easier to understand if presented using a ball and bat or with a pool table.

There are a good deal of hands-on math curricula that integrate such projects and activities into their lessons, and for those looking to supplement traditional classroom learning there are, of course, tons of hands-on math books and resources out there to look at.

Make Math Practice More Interesting, Focused

With the exception of a few unique individuals out there, doing page after page of math problems in succession is not really anyone’s idea of a good time. 

Yet, in order to hone a student’s skill and develop fluency, math practice is crucial.

To make things easier for the reluctant math student, it is important to remember that math practice doesn’t have to look like a typical page of numeric problem sets.

Computational exercises and word problems can be integrated into other, more stimulating activities, which can make things, if not fun, at least a little less boring.

Simpler math equations are, for example, often offered as sudoku puzzles, magic squares, crossword puzzles, and even coloring books, all of which can make the process of repeatedly drilling operations a little bit more goal directed and interesting. 

Alternatively, for those who like to make things a little more high-tech, there are a number of free and paid resources out there that integrate math study into digital games of various kinds. 

These games often make use of gamified environments and/or video game elements to make practicing math concepts a little more interesting and relevant for students.

screenshot of redbird math using games to help students practice math skills

For example, students might be given an avatar and progress around a 2D or even 3D world, pulling, pushing, squeezing or otherwise moving objects around on screen by solving math problems in some manner. 

Depending on the resource, these can be fairly simple quiz-style games or impressively designed app-style games with cartoon and 3d graphics and funky controls.

These digital options have another advantage in that they can more easily monitor student progress and offer real time reports on precisely which skills students have deficits in and consequently where they need more reinforcement and review. 

Bottom Line

Math isn’t always a student’s favorite subject.

Some may see it as frustrating, picky and hard and there can often be quite a few reasons for why students might perceive the discipline as such. 

Regardless of the reasons why, math remains a critical subject in today’s world and forms the basis for most STEM disciplines and the technologies we use.

Concerned parents of students who suffer from anxiety around or a general dislike of math can take comfort in the fact that skill in math is learned and that just about any student can be taught to understand and master its concepts if explained to in a way that fits them and given effective practice opportunity. 

And once a student is able to see that math isn’t as hard as they thought and is actually something they can succeed at, well, that’s one less major obstacle on their road to success in life.

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About the Author

David Belenky is a freelance writer, former science and math tutor and a tech enthusiast. When he’s not writing about educational tech, he likes to chill out with his family and dog at home.