When You Think You're Bad at Math...
By. A Future Focused Student
“I’m bad at math” – an unfair perception of myself that I picked up in middle school and held onto like a of twisted version of a security blanket throughout high school and even into college. Did it give me comfort to hold on to the belief that I was “bad at math”? Maybe. As a type -A student, I always strove for perfection in school. Sure 92% on an exam was good, but what did I miss? When it came to math though, it was a different story. That was the one hall pass I gave myself.
However, the real story is that I am not, in fact, “bad at math." Newsflash, calculus is difficult! Nevertheless, I felt inferior to my peers (ok the one math whizz), who for them math seemed like a language that came more easily than English. I was plagued by damaging comparison that took root in middle school and haunted me throughout my school career. I went through the honors track in high school, putting in the work and getting much better grades than someone who is actually “bad at math”. Nevertheless, as I got into more advanced math, my perception of myself and my ability to succeed in the subject really started to impact my performance. Whereas in other subjects, I would always give my best guess to achieve every available point, I got to a point on math tests where I would get stumped on problems and leave them blank because I didn’t feel deserving of the points. Then I would get my test back and flip disheartened to the page where I had given up, disappointed and confused how I had gotten to this point. My underlying confidence issues combined with the pressure I put on myself to perform academically left me crippled. Exacerbating the situation even more, I worried about my future goal of pursuing a degree in engineering and how I would be able to keep up with other students who excelled in math. Because I wanted to study engineering in college, I opted to take AP Physics 1 my junior year of high school but was extremely nervous about the class because I knew that physics is just science parading as math. I would spend hours and hours completing homework every week and be very anxious before any sort of assessment. Every time I inputted an answer into the online homework and it came back incorrect, my confidence would drop even more. I experienced the same feeling of unworthiness on assessments and would leave problems blank, even if I did have some ideas how to do it, because I resigned myself to the belief that it was simply too hard.
It’s not like a was getting a C in the class, my dedication to completing the homework and lab assignments along with doing average on exams kept my grade at around a B+, but I wanted more. Yes, it was about the grade, but I also knew that if I couldn’t overcome my confidence issues then, I would have a very difficult time in college surrounded by peers who felt extremely confident in the subjects. I didn’t just want to be able to guess correctly, I wanted to really understand the underlying topics and how to solve the problems.
I first came to Future Focused the summer before my junior year to prepare for the September ACT. I had a great experience with my tutor and jumped 6 points in my score to earn a score that I felt reflected my ability and put me in a good position to apply to the colleges I was interested in. I asked my mom if I could come back to Future Focused to get help with physics and she was a little hesitant at first because she thought I was pedantically obsessed with my grades. Perhaps there was some minor truth there, but I knew that the underlying issue was that I needed to reclaim my confidence. My mom relented and I became a weekly student at Future Focused where I would spend an hour going through my homework and being able to ask questions like… “well what if the question had asked this?” … or simply being in a setting where I could ask “why” as many times as I wanted without feeling the dead gaze of my peers who would act like nothing could ever confuse them. Zach, my physics tutor, was extremely patient and happy to spend an entire hour going over single concept so that I would feel complete confidence. Zach was also validating through his assurance that, “yes this was a particularly challenging problem”. I was able to get feedback on why the method I tried first was incorrect, rather than jumping to the correct method as my teacher would typically do. Zach helped me believe in my own ability to succeed that I could not have regained on my own.
Going into my final year of studying civil engineering at Notre Dame, I am beyond grateful for the gift of confidence that my time at Future Focused has given me. Not only confidence, but also feeling comfortable asking and receiving help has been a huge asset to me in my studies. I will always be grateful for my time at Future Focused because reestablishing confidence in myself and my ability has allowed my ambitions to become a reality.