Monday, September 1, 2014

Bad at Math Is a Lie

Matt Waite—University of Nebraska-Lincoln

All I had to do was test into college algebra. That was what the College of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Nebraska required in 1993. If you could score well enough on the math placement exam for incoming freshmen to get into college algebra—not take it, just get into it—you were done with math.

I very nearly didn’t graduate from high school on time because of math, so this made the test a five-alarm panic attack. I struggled in every math class I took in high school. I needed tutors and small miracles to pass.

But all of this was OK because I was Bad at Math. It was a thing. People I knew were Bad at Math. My mom was too. So it was probably genetic. I was born to agonize over math, my friends weren’t.

So when I tested into college algebra, you would have thought I hit a home run in the bottom of the ninth in the seventh game of the World Series and scored the goal that won the World Cup all at the same time. I went running across campus jumping and pumping my fists like a lunatic.

Fast forward almost 20 years, and there I was, taking that same math placement exam. I wanted to get an MBA, and calculus was required to get in.

You could say I bombed, but that’s not true. I tested exactly where I should have: remedial algebra. I was going to have to take two math classes before taking calculus.

That’s how I—a 37-year-old father of two, a professor with a résumé that includes reporting from a war zone, stargazing through the eye of a hurricane, starting my own software company, and building a website that was the first to get a Pulitzer Prize—ended up in a remedial algebra class with students half my age.

And I was terrified.

See, I was Bad at Math. I knew I was going to have to sit in the front row, ask millions of questions, and work harder than anyone in there if I had any hope of passing. Forget about getting a good grade.

And that’s what I did. I sat in the front row. I raised my hand so much they asked me to stop. I was that student. The one who did extra homework. The one who started studying for tests a week ahead of time.

And I learned something: Bad at Math is a lie. It’s a lie I believed to make struggling at math hurt less.

I worked harder in that one math class than I had in whole years of schooling. And I got an A in math for the first time since the fifth grade. And I did the same thing in College Algebra—and got the same grade.

When it came time to take calculus, I was beyond scared. I struggled. I went in for extra help. I used online videos. I did twice as much extra homework. And I lay awake at night, worrying, going over problems, doing them in my head.

I might get the A in calculus tattooed somewhere. It means that much to me.

Somewhere in the early years, I missed something. I daydreamed through a lecture, something. Something didn’t click, I didn’t ask, and I started struggling. The Bad At Math lie was born. And I believed it.

But the truth is anyone can get math. Some of us just have to work harder. Some of us didn’t get the message that you have to practice. We didn’t get that math is really explaining how to solve a problem, not just solving the problem in front of you.

If you’re reading a magazine about math, none of this might make any sense to you because you get it. But trust me, someone sitting near you is in agony, panicking that he or she doesn’t get it.

Someone near you still believes the lie.

Matt Waite is a professor of practice at the College of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, teaching reporting and digital media development. He was the principal developer of the website PolitiFact.

This article was published in the September 2014 issue of Math Horizons.