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Can someone be 'not good at math'?

  1. Mar 29, 2013 #1
    OK SO ...

    I've always thought myself as 'not very good' at math. I always get B's or C's in stem courses.

    I've completed calc I-III, and university physics 1-2, chem 1-2 under that notion and achieving those grades at my university.

    I just spoke to a group of people that were taking calc I for the -third- time (IE failing it twice in a row). Now I'm beginning to question whether I'm really 'bad' at math at all and considering that I've just been conducting psychological warfare upon myself all these years.

    I thought that B's and C's basically meant 'you cant do math' but apparently there are people that are actually THAT bad, ie they don't get anything right and literally can't do it.

    Hmm, I would like to hear your thoughts on this. Are there really people who 'can't do' math in a literal sense, and this is what makes them choose careers/majors outside of stem (at the very least, they are so debilitated mathematically that it is incredibly hard for them to make anything higher than D/F)? Or is everyone just psychologically screwing themselves?
    Last edited: Mar 29, 2013
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  3. Mar 29, 2013 #2

    Simon Bridge

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    Welcome to PF;
    It is possible to be "not good at math" but those B's and C's don't really mean much.
    I never got more than a B+ in my life and I made it through grad school physics.

    You are doing the right thing by comparing your capabilities with others taking the path you are headed down - and also the right thing by not comparing yourself with the top group. The trick is to concentrate on learning.

    However: yes, there are people who just cannot do math.
    It is usually considered a learning disorder (or a consequence of one) and, in extreme circumstances, can involve physical brain damage.
  4. Mar 29, 2013 #3
    Thanks for the response and words of encouragement.

    I'll try to keep learning my primary focus as I continue with my education (it seems obvious when stated like that, but it's not always obvious in the day-to-day).
  5. Mar 29, 2013 #4


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    For me, I'm OK at math...if I have enough time for it to soak in. By exam time, no I'm not good yet. But six-or-so months later? I can hold my own.
  6. Mar 30, 2013 #5

    If you're getting B's and C's, you're doing fine. I got those grades all throughout college in my math courses and ended up graduating. I even got a D in one of my multivariable classes and had to retake it. If you just stick with it, it'll eventually click, and you'll find math to be a lot easier. At least, that's what happened with me.

    Good luck!
  7. Mar 30, 2013 #6
    The degree of math talent is something you are born with, you can't break past a certain level, as long as you are not planning on being a mathematician or theoretical physicist you should be fine.
  8. Mar 30, 2013 #7
    OP, I completely understand your situation to a certain degree. I am not learning your level of mathematics yet, but I understand how people could think that they are just not good at math. I hated and despised mathematics due to my severe lack of abilities. My peers and previous teachers used to think that I had a learning disability or that I was just plain dumb. I didn't understand division until the 8th grade nor the idea of multiplying and adding fractions until 10th for Pete's sake! One day I decided that enough was enough, so I went and relearned math from the very beginning and paid attention to EVERY little detail. I not only tried to know how to manipulate equations and engage in all sorts of operations, I tried to understand WHY these things were allowed to happen and when to use them. I owe this a lot to books I picked up in the library that explained things to people like you and me. Sometimes text books and professors are just not the best way for us to learn. Sometimes it takes the "addition is like counting apples" approach (obviously were talking about much more complex ideas here though) to understand a concept and that is fine. Sometimes we really need a simple and related analogy for something to "click". My best advice for you is to go to your local library and find these types of books or even videos online if you haven't already. There was even one book (the title of which I do not remember) that is completely dedicated to teaching the reader on how to understand textbooks themselves (in terms of their often complicated and/or vague explanations). Never give up op!
    Last edited: Mar 30, 2013
  9. Mar 30, 2013 #8
    Yes, I think somebody can be bad at math. Humans are diverse and there are individuals that are naturally good and naturally bad at anything.

    I'm bad at math, but I kind of like it. I compensated for lack of ability by spending lots of time studying and taking an enormous amount of math classes. After years of study, I'm still bad at math... But I did slog through it for some reason.
  10. Mar 30, 2013 #9


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    I always like to think of questions like this in terms of an athletic analogy. Take, for example, marathon running.

    Within a given population the innate ability for running a marathon will naturally vary. Some people will naturally excel at it. Others won't be able to get past the first kilometre. But you're not necessarily stuck with your innate ability. One major factor will be the conditions under which you grew up. If your parents smoked around you, your performance may not be so great. If you were fed a poor diet and lived in front of the television... again, not so great for running marathons. But if you grew up having to run five kilometres to get to school every day, barefoot, through the sand... you'd be a little better at it.

    And then there's the training effect. I'm never going to win an Olympic medal in marathon running. But a few years ago I ran several half marathons, my best time coming in just under two hours, because my wife and I trained for them.

    All of this applies, in my opinion, to intellectual pursuits as well, such as the study of mathematics, or physics, or anything really.

    Yes, some people are just not going to "get" calculus. In fact a lot of people just don't "get" basic algebra. And while I believe it's possible for them to eventually gain an understanding of such things, the effort required could be substantial... in some cases too substantial to really bother with, particularly if they have other strengths.

    Getting a particular grade in a subject is only a minor reflection of how well one understands the material and how effectively one can use it. If you get a B in a math course it doesn't mean that you can't understand the material any more than running a marathon in four hours and fifteen minutes means you can't compete in marathons. If you intend on running, the Boston Marathon, you will for example have to train harder to perform better, similar if you want to go to graduate school for math.

    But you do have to make an intelligent assessment of yourself. How much effort will it take for me to see the kind of performances I want? Am I willing to put in the time? Will I be able to accept that the effort to performance ratio will be different for other people?
  11. Mar 30, 2013 #10
    Somewhat agree. Yeah, if you're not born with natural talent for math and a high level of intelligence, you're not going to be able to solve quantum gravity, or win a Fields medal. But I believe most people are perfectly capable of working towards a level of mathematical understanding far above what they believe themselves to be capable of, with enough practice and education. Too many people swear up and down that they can't do math in any capacity, and then never try to do it.
  12. Mar 30, 2013 #11


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    Some people aren't very good at mathematics or anything logical.

    In fact , there's so many of them that ''being bad at math'' is almost becoming a popular point of pride.

    In society it isn't shameful to suck at math.It's actually a pretty weird phenomenom when you think about it.
  13. Mar 30, 2013 #12
    Actually, I believe it's the opposite. At least in American schools, "being bad at math" is such a point of pride, that students are pressured away from mathematical sciences from the start. Nobody puts effort into math, because it's not cool to be good at math. Kids go into school expecting to be bad at math and hate it, because that's what the culture teaches. Most students really don't even give it a chance, or put any considerable effort into it, because they feel they have that sort of predetermined inclination against from mathematics that everyone else does.
  14. Mar 30, 2013 #13


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    Looks like all my aspirations to be a set theorist are now down the drain. Woe is me.
  15. Mar 30, 2013 #14
    This is of course completely wrong. It is my personal opinion and experience that everybody is able to understand advanced mathematics and physics, given enough time. True, some people may struggle harder than others, but eventually those people do get there.

    I've seen quite a lot of geniuses who understand math immediately, but who failed grad school because they didn't work hard enough. On the other side, I know enough people who really struggled through their undergrad but whose hard work paid off. If you ask me what the most important quality is in a mathematician then it is hard work and patience. Why patience? It happens a lot of times that you don't understand something on the exam, but 6 months later you consider it to be easy. Basically, you've grown and learned more. It's certainly not true that you're stuck in one place all the time and don't move forwards. You always move forwards, although sometimes it goes very slow.

    Learning math is like watching a river flow. Sometimes you have very fast waterfalls. Other times you are stuck in a lake and you don't see to advancing. But eventually, you do get to the sea.
  16. Mar 30, 2013 #15
    Exactly. I don't know if you'd be able to be the next Einstein without the IQ required, but mathematician or theoretical physicist certainly shouldn't be beyond anyone's reach.
  17. Mar 30, 2013 #16


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    Come on , I wonder when we're going to stop victimizing everybody.It's highly possible that once a mathematically talented student reach the age of 15-16 years old he starts to receive peer pressure to ''be cool'' and ''drink alcohol and try to score chicks'' , therefore wasting his mathematical potential , but this particular student will more often than not have shown good mathematical potential between the age of 4 and 14 , and he probably already knows that he is good at math.

    I'm far , far from convinced any ''culture'' will make a mathematically gifted person unaware of his above average talent.He might hide it or never use it , but not knowing it exist? Hard to believe.
  18. Mar 30, 2013 #17


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    I guess this comes down to accomplishment vs raw talent.If the system is making the ''geniuses'' drop out because they didn't teach them hard work previously then thought they should learn on the job , in the end it's the human race loss.If a ''genius'' works as hard as the other guy the odds are in favor of the ''genius'' producing better mathematical work.
  19. Mar 30, 2013 #18
    No no no, I'm not talking about student who are exceptionally gifted in math, I'm talking about the average student.

    For example, I was pretty average at math throughout my high school career. My parents actually told me once that Calculus was the most difficult subject in the world, and I got the sense that only geniuses could ever really learn it. I was passionate about space from a young age, and wanted to do astronomy/astrophysics, but having seen my grades and my struggles with math throughout high school, my mom once tried to persuade me to take an alternate career path, but I stuck with it and eventually got pretty good. All I'm trying to say is that math is more accessible to the average student than they typically realize.
  20. Mar 30, 2013 #19
    It shouldn't, but it is. Taken to the extreme you are asserting that the person with the lowest IQ on the planet could be a mathematician. That is of course flat out not true. Some people have trouble just understanding basic numbers. Some people need constant training and supervision just to wash dishes or sort recyclables. Certainly a large amount of people could never be a mathematician no matter how much time and energy gets invested in them.
  21. Mar 30, 2013 #20
    There is in fact a disorder that is the numeracy equivalent of dyslexia, and it can get bad enough to make it hard to say for sure that the square root of 5 is less than 2 or that 3! is smaller than 20. So there is definitely this natural ability at work.

    However, this "good at math" or "bad at math" stuff comes from school and the standardized progression schedule of math learning. Some kids pick up math super quick, some don't, but they all work within the curriculum. If some kids pick it up slow in grade school they learn to say "well I'm just not a "math" guy" and then invest their energy in other talents, so that small initial difference in ability translates over time into a compounded and substantial difference in mathematical ability at, say, uni level.
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