Why Students find Mathematics so difficult

Gabriel Harper a  Freelance Brain Surgeon provided some tips on the main reason why students find mathematics so difficult 

There are certainly a lot of reasons, but I think these lie at the core:

  1. For most sane human beings, math is an incomprehensibly mind-numbing and entirely fruitless exercise in cerebral fitness; nothing more.
  2. Math teachers tend to be complete nerds who are great with numbers and terrible at connecting with people.
  3. Math teachers are typically inept at associating math lessons with reality.
  4. Math is completely unemotional for most people. It doesn’t engage you on any personal level. Without any spark of feeling to drive a student’s interest, they will never become captivated by the subject.

I always managed top grades in math studies and took most of the advanced courses up until college. Honestly it bored me to death, but it was pretty easy for me so I could score well without much effort.

The only time I was ever really excited about math is when I was at home, programming my 8086. I got a 486 when I was around 12-13 and started coding 3D transformation algorithms for a simple rendering engine I was building. I had to teach myself the math, and I actually found it pretty intuitive because it fit into a greater purpose; it had context in a project that I was really passionate about completing.

It didn’t dawn on me how little I actually cared about math for the sake of math until I started taking advanced courses as a freshman in college. The professor sucked. He wrote his own course book and it was almost completely illegible (it didn’t help that I hate sloppy handwriting). He was everything you would expect in a stereotypical mathematician: impersonal, disconnected from his students, and obsessed with numbers. Not once did we get out of our seats and put our theories and knowledge to the test in any real life circumstances. Not once did he approach students individually to discover their innate talents or interests. He might has well have been a talking textbook. It was an absolute bore, and it permanently threw a wet blanket on any interest I had in the subject for many years.

The sad thing is that I absolutely love physics. If I hadn’t pursued a career in computers, it probably would have been physics (or neurology, but I didn’t quite discover my passion for the subject until much later in life). Unfortunately physics has extreme demands for mathematical ability. If only I had somehow brought the two together years ago, it probably would have given me some passion for the subject.

It seems to me that once you get beyond the basics, math studies really need to have a place in the bigger picture. Teaching advanced concepts & math history without any thought to application is possibly the most effective way to drive students away from the subject.

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