I've heard this sentiment over and over--sometimes from students, and sometimes, I'll admit, in my own head.

Last night, I was working on my own math homework, and there was one problem I just couldn't get my head around. I read the book, looked back at my class notes, and even sat down with a tutor for a while, and still, when I tried a new problem of the same type on my own, it just didn't work!

"Maybe I'm not as good at math as I thought," I told myself. "Am I REALLY smart enough for bioengineering?"

It was hard, but I told myself "YES!" And I kept working. I laid the assigned problems aside and started doing other problems of the same type from the book. I checked my work every time. Each problem took at least ten minutes to solve, and the first three were ALL wrong! I kept going. I got one right, and it made sense! I did another, and it was half right, but there was still a problem. I did another, and it was right!

Eventually I had a page of right answers, and I went back to the same homework problem I'd tried four times and suddenly it worked! I don't know why this one method was so difficult for me to understand, but at this point, it doesn't matter. My homework is done, and I'll be able to do it right on the test.

This is what "good at math" means. We all want to be good without trying, but math is a vast set of skills. Sometimes we're lucky, and we're able to pick up some or even most things without really grappling with them. Sometimes, we have to trudge through a skill an inch at a time. Many students think of math classes as something you just barely survive, where there will come a day when one just gets you, and you're done. When you're trying to survive math, a tough problem like this looks like the end. This is it. You've understood everything you will ever understand, and everything harder is just Too Hard. The student who is Good At Math gets those hard problems too, but she sees them as places she has to put in some hard work. Even if it takes you twice as long as everyone else to get this concept, the next one might be a breeze. And even if EVERY concept is a tough uphill climb, at the top of the hill, you've beaten it.

Last night, I was working on my own math homework, and there was one problem I just couldn't get my head around. I read the book, looked back at my class notes, and even sat down with a tutor for a while, and still, when I tried a new problem of the same type on my own, it just didn't work!

"Maybe I'm not as good at math as I thought," I told myself. "Am I REALLY smart enough for bioengineering?"

It was hard, but I told myself "YES!" And I kept working. I laid the assigned problems aside and started doing other problems of the same type from the book. I checked my work every time. Each problem took at least ten minutes to solve, and the first three were ALL wrong! I kept going. I got one right, and it made sense! I did another, and it was half right, but there was still a problem. I did another, and it was right!

Eventually I had a page of right answers, and I went back to the same homework problem I'd tried four times and suddenly it worked! I don't know why this one method was so difficult for me to understand, but at this point, it doesn't matter. My homework is done, and I'll be able to do it right on the test.

This is what "good at math" means. We all want to be good without trying, but math is a vast set of skills. Sometimes we're lucky, and we're able to pick up some or even most things without really grappling with them. Sometimes, we have to trudge through a skill an inch at a time. Many students think of math classes as something you just barely survive, where there will come a day when one just gets you, and you're done. When you're trying to survive math, a tough problem like this looks like the end. This is it. You've understood everything you will ever understand, and everything harder is just Too Hard. The student who is Good At Math gets those hard problems too, but she sees them as places she has to put in some hard work. Even if it takes you twice as long as everyone else to get this concept, the next one might be a breeze. And even if EVERY concept is a tough uphill climb, at the top of the hill, you've beaten it.

## Comments