Being successful at science and math takes attitude, not aptitude
4 mins read

Being successful at science and math takes attitude, not aptitude

We all can read. We’re expected to. We wouldn’t accept it if someone came to class and said, “I can’t read, I’m not good at it, I’m just not a reading person.” A person who said that would get an earful about how reading is important and how they can become better by practice. Reading is a requirement for living life, so why isn’t math?

Why do we accept the excuse, “I’m not a math person?” I think it’s fairly obvious. It’s because we think math is related to genes, to parents or some other outside factor. We think mathematical ability is something we’re born with, and if you’re not born with it, then there’s no chance of ever being capable.

It’s a great shame we think this way. We don’t approach reading, writing, speaking or how many other skills this way. It’s about time math is treated the same way. Enough of this attitude. Enough of the excuses and self-pity. It’s factually false that people are born doomed to fail at math. Hard work and dedication is what leads to success.  And the attitude only harms students. For starters, the idea that math is related to genetics, as if there was a math gene, is wrong. Hard work does pay off. But more importantly, the belief that one can change their intelligence is essential.

Research conducted at Purdue University found that “incremental orientation (intelligence) is a malleable quality that increases with effort. Students with an entity orientation believe ability to be nonmalleable, a fixed quality of self that does not increase with effort.”

Simply put, if you think you can, you can. If you don’t think you can, then you won’t. Our current culture reinforces the second.

Research has found that students who believe they can improve their intelligence can also improve their grades. Telling students math is a matter of genetics and that hard work won’t fix it only holds them back. I myself know how hard work is the key to strong math skills.

If we want students to improve their math abilities, we need to stop letting them make excuses. We should raise those standards and teach our students well, and encourage students to pursue math instead of accepting excuses and allowing them to feel discouraged about STEM fields.

I’m a math major, but I’m not a “math person.” My worst recorded grade is in math. Was algebra hard? Yes, as was calculus, trigonometry and the rest.  My notes nor my homework was  good, mostly scribblings and chicken scratch. But I realized that it didn’t matter: if I wanted to be successful, I would have to change my mentality. I couldn’t give myself the luxury of excuses. I had to look myself in the mirror and demand more from myself.

I put my nose to grindstone. First, I changed the way I studied. My concern was no longer just about getting the correct answer. Rather, I made sure I understood why it was the answer. I also had to change the way I took notes. I didn’t just copy what the teacher or professor put on board: I made side notes to clarify confusion I knew I would see later.

There was some immediate progress. Stronger test performances and higher grade averages were encouraging. It wasn’t my parents, or my educational circumstances, that got me through classes like Algebra 2. It was because I stopped making excuses for myself and held myself to a higher standard. I told myself I could do better, and I did.

If we want USD and education in general to improve, we must abandon this mentality of “math people.” I’m not demanding everyone be a mathematician. But we require everyone be able to read, not that they get Ph.D.s in English. We should do the same for math.