why is math so hard

Why is math so hard?

June 30, 2023
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Math is often considered one of the most challenging subjects students learn. Between equations and multi-step word problems, it’s easy to simply give up.

But here’s a hot take: Learning math doesn't have to be a frustrating experience—even when that learning happens after you're out of school. With the right strategies and tools, math can be easy… and even enjoyable. So keep reading to learn about why math can be hard, strategies for making it easier, and how the Elevate app can help. 

Why does math feel like the world's toughest brain test?

Students struggle with math for a variety of reasons—some of them may resonate with you whether you're still a student or not. 

One of the most common reasons people struggle with math is that math involves abstract concepts that can be pretty difficult to understand. Unlike other subjects that are more concrete, math deals with numbers, symbols, and equations that can be difficult to grasp. (Plus, if you’re an auditory learner, you might find it challenging to visualize and understand math.) 

Another reason for difficulty in math is a potentially weak foundation established in elementary school and middle school math classes. No shade to your past math teachers, but math concepts build upon themselves, so if you haven’t fully grasped the fundamental concepts early on, it might be difficult to keep up with learning more complex topics. 

Fear and anxiety can also play a role in the perceived difficulty of math. You might have previously experienced negative feedback or discouragement from teachers or peers after solving math problems, and chances are that’s led to doubt your abilities in the subject. 

And finally, cultural and societal attitudes toward math can contribute to its perceived difficulty. Some people view math as a subject that only certain people are capable of excelling in, such as those who are naturally gifted at it. This mindset can discourage you from pursuing math or cause you to feel like a failure if you don't understand it right away. 

The role of cognitive processes in understanding math

Now. let’s take a closer look inward. How does your brain process math, exactly? 

The short answer: Your brain processes mathematical information through a variety of cognitive processes. Let’s break them down: 

  • One important process is logical reasoning, which involves identifying patterns and relationships between numbers and symbols. Logical reasoning helps you make sense of mathematical concepts and solve problems by breaking them down into smaller, more manageable parts.
  • Another cognitive skill involved in learning math is problem-solving. This skill involves using logic and critical thinking to identify the steps required to solve a particular math problem. Effective problem-solving requires you to understand the underlying concepts related to the problem, as well as the rules and procedures for manipulating numbers and symbols.
  • In addition to these skills, critical thinking is also important for learning and understanding math. Critical thinking involves evaluating information, identifying assumptions, and making logical deductions based on evidence. In math, critical thinking is essential for analyzing complex problems and developing creative solutions.
  • Finally, working memory plays a crucial role in math learning and understanding. Meaning, you must be able to hold multiple pieces of information in your mind simultaneously in order to solve problems and understand concepts. Developing your working memory capacity can help you improve your ability to tackle complex math problems. (Lucky for you, we have some tips to help you do that.) 

Overall, understanding how your brain process mathematical information is essential for effective math learning and understanding. By developing skills such as logical reasoning, problem-solving, critical thinking, and working memory capacity, you can improve your ability to succeed in this important subject.

How to make math easier

Now that you know more about your brain processes mathematical information, it’s time to put it to work. But don’t worry, these two practical strategies are sure to make math a little easier—and less daunting: 

1. Practice and consistency is key

You know what they say: Practice makes perfect. And while it might seem like a no-brainer, practice and consistency are two of the most effective ways to improve math skills. By practicing math regularly, you can develop a better understanding of mathematical concepts, improve your problem-solving skills, build your confidence in your ability to solve problems, retain information, and build on your previous knowledge.

2. Use a step-by-step approach

Another strategy for making math easier is to use a step-by-step approach to solving complex problems. This involves breaking down the problem into smaller parts, identifying the key information—the “why”—that’s needed to solve the problem, and using visual aids or diagrams to help you understand the problem. (Remember when your math teacher used to instruct you to draw dots on numbers’ endpoints to help you practice counting?) 

While these two strategies are great starting points, there are many other resources and tools available to aid in learning math and making it a little easier. Math tutors can provide one-on-one support and personalized instruction tailored to your needs. Plus, online resources such as Khan Academy or Mathway provide access to instructional videos, practice problems, and step-by-step solutions for various types of math problems. 

Harnessing the power of learning games for adults to boost your math skills

To practice building your practical math skills in a fun and low-stakes setting, you can also use certain mobile apps. One popular brain training app that incorporates a wide variety of math games is Elevate. 

With more than 40 games spread across math skill groups, reading, writing, speaking, and memory, the Elevate app offers personalized training programs based on your goals—like improving your math skills—and it adapts to your skill level and performance over time. And it makes learning math much more fun than it was in high school!

Elevate's top brain games for learning math

The Elevate app includes several brain games designed to enhance and improve your math skills, testing your knowledge in areas like multiplication, percentages, addition, subtraction, and even budgeting. Plus, you can track your progress right in the app.

  1. Subtraction is a great way to strengthen your mental math.
  2. Percentages teaches you how to easily calculate both simple and complex percentages. 
  3. Discounting lets you practice rapidly organizing prices from least to most expensive with taxes and discounts. 
  4. Averages teaches you how to quickly and accurately calculate the average of a set of numbers.
  5. Tipping teaches you how to rapidly calculate common tip percentages.
  6. Purchasing helps you calculate common spending habits, so you can be more confident in your purchasing decisions.
  7. Measuring teaches you how to use mental math for things like cooking and construction.
  8. Estimation helps you increase the accuracy of your mental calculations.
  9. Division helps you more accurately divide a set of numbers, you can more accurately split bills and other household expenses.
  10. Equivalence teaches you tips for breaking down complex fractions. 
  11. Conversion helps you easily convert weights and distances for cooking, travel, and more.
  12. Percentages teaches you how to calculate markups and discounts in your head. 

Real success stories from users who have improved their math skills

Many people who use Elevate have seen big improvements in their math skills, as evidenced by this sampling of the app’s reviews:

  • “I needed some serious work on my math abilities. Now I’m at the top of my class in math all because of this app. I seriously believe you should try it.”
  • “I use this almost every day. I believe it keeps my mind sharp. I also feel a sense of accomplishment when I have completed the day's training and I’m seeing progress in math!”
  • “I have an enormous math phobia that this app is actually helping me deal with. I volunteer once a week at a place where I close out the cash register and add up a bunch of bills and coins. Previously, I’d use my calculator to do the brain work, but now I’m to a point where I can do some of the calculations in my head!”

How to overcome math anxiety

As previously mentioned, math anxiety can be a significant obstacle if you’re looking to improve your math skills. But understanding the causes and effects of math anxiety is essential to overcoming it. 

Understand the causes and effects of math anxiety

Math anxiety can be caused by several factors, including a lack of confidence in math abilities, fear of failure, and negative experiences with math in the past. If you struggle with math, you might know the feeling of overwhelm or frustration by complex problems all too well.

The effects of math anxiety can be severe, including decreased performance on math tests and assignments, as well as a lack of interest in math for more practical reasons, such as tipping or budgeting. 

Cultivate a math-friendly mindset

You can try several practical tips to overcome your math anxiety. 

Practicing relaxation techniques such as deep breathing or visualization can help calm your nerves and reduce anxiety. Breaking down complex problems into smaller parts can also make math easier to understand and help you feel less overwhelmed.

And if you’re willing to go the extra mile, seeking help from math teachers or tutors is another effective way to overcome your math anxiety. A tutor can provide one-on-one support and instruction tailored to your needs, helping you build up your confidence. 

Additionally, reframing any negative attitudes toward math and focusing on its practical applications can help you develop a more positive mindset toward the subject. For example, understanding algebra can help with budgeting and financial planning. Algebraic equations can be used to calculate interest rates, loan payments, and other financial calculations to help you build your dream life. By focusing on these practical applications, you might become more motivated to learn algebra and develop a more positive attitude toward the subject.

Overall, overcoming math anxiety requires both understanding its causes and effects and developing practical strategies for cultivating a positive mindset toward math. By implementing these strategies and seeking support when needed, you can improve your math skills. You’ve got this! 

Start improving your math skills today

It’s no secret: Math is challenging. But by learning practical strategies and tools and shifting your perspective about math, you can make it easier… and even a little fun. One way to build practical math skills is by downloading the Elevate brain training app on iOS or Android. It has fun games specifically dedicated to improving your practical math skills. Give it a try for free today!


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  • Many of us are overly reliant on phone calculators. Learn how to calculate a tip with mental math. 

Understanding and improving your working memory and short-term memory

  • Learn the differences between working memory and short-term memory and tips for improving them.
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