Why is maths difficult

Learning maths - what does it takeMaths is different. More students pass their Maths exams at an early age than any other subject, and yet it’s thought of as being difficult. Why?

When a child is seen to grasp maths at an early age, they are often thought to possess the equivalent of a maths gene – they are born good at maths. But research suggests that this is rarely so.

Does learning maths involve special skills that are not needed for other subjects? If you start out badly with maths, will you ever be able to get good grades? Here are some thoughts on what it takes to be good at maths – even if you don’t have the ‘maths gene’.


Maths learning is sequential and cumulative. In other words, one thing leads to another and your knowledge grows. So you need to realise that you have to put in the hours.

Maths is not just about accumulating unrelated individual facts. Many successful students, especially those that pass maths early, say that the key is to do lots and lots of practice questions. It sounds obvious, but many teenagers don’t have the patience.

Being able to work at a problem patiently, without giving up until you get it is an essential skill. It has been said that students are far less patient these days. There is so much information around and, with sources such as Google and Wikipedia, there is an expectation that it takes only a short while to get the facts.

Learn the basics

Many of the students that come to me have missed important ideas. They find questions difficult because they don’t have the core number skills. It is very easy to fall behind at school without realising it. And teachers have a hard enough job just keeping control!

So it is important to go back to basics and make sure you have decent number and mental maths skills.

A problem-solving mindset

I’ve seen many students look at a question and immediately say they can’t do it. “I haven’t seen that question before,” is often the comment.

A problem-solving approach might involve asking the questions,
~ “What do I know about this type of question?
~ What does it remind me of?
~ What can I do with the information given to me, even if I can’t see how to get to the answer straight away?
~ Can I split the problem up into smaller problems?”

Make connections

For example, there are many questions in maths that involve a knowledge of ratio, but the connection isn’t usually made explicit by teachers or text-books.

Each topic in a text-book is treated as a separate topic – many of the most useful connections are not explained. So the ability to see the bigger picture – to reflect on the material and see the connections – is the mark of a good maths student. Encourage your child to think about how one topic is similar to another, or uses the same kind of ideas.

These types of relationships are more easily seen if you use accelerated learning note-making techniques such as mega-memorymaps – but that’s a subject for a future post.

As usual, do get in touch with questions, requests, feedback or suggestions. I will reply!

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