The University of Alabama
Center for Academic Success
Performance in mathematics courses often
is undermined by faulty beliefs regarding the subject and one’s own
abilities. These erroneous beliefs — or Math Myths — hamper both
effort and self-confidence and should be examined in order to acquire a
more productive approach to mathematics.
The Genius Myth
This myth involves the belief that people who are successful in
math are smarter (and maybe "better") than the rest of us.
Somehow mathematical ability is viewed as higher or more enlightened than
other abilities. For example, musicians may be embarrassed to be low in
math skills, but mathematicians may not be embarrassed if they have low
music ability. It is important to place math ability on the same level as
other abilities. There is no proof that one type of skill is better than
The It-Should-Be-Easy Myth
Some people believe that those who do well in math find it easy
and that if it is difficult, one simply doesn’t have a "math
mind." The fact of the matter is that difficult math solutions do not
come quickly or easily. Having difficulty in solving problems is not
unusual. The only problems mathematicians do quickly are those they have
done before. Speed is not a measure of ability. It is the result of
experience and practice.
The Good Memory Myth
This myth implies that a phenomenal ability to recall formulas is
necessary for the mastery of math. Learning math, however, does not
require an exceptional memory. Instead, knowing math means that concepts
make sense to you, and rules and formulas are understood.
The Using-Tools-Is-Cheating Myth
This myth indicates that we’re not supposed to use our fingers
or calculators or computers to do math. Since when is using tools to make
a task simpler cheating? Without these tools, math really could become
drudgery. And there is nothing wrong with counting on fingers as an aid to
doing arithmetic. This process actually indicates an understanding of
arithmetic — more understanding than if everything were memorized.
The Gender Myth
The Gender Myth is based on the faulty belief that men are better
in math than women. Research has failed to show any difference between men
and women in mathematical ability. There are, however, cultural pressures
on women "to be less interested" in mathematical careers. There
are also subtle pressures on women not to be smarter than men in math. As
a result of this social conditioning, men are often reluctant to admit
they have problems; so, they express difficulty with math by saying
"I could do it if I tried." Women are often too ready to admit
inadequacy and say, "I just can’t do math."
The Who Needs it Anyway Myth
Finding math difficult, some people rationalize that only a few
fields — like engineering — require math skills. Certainly, this myth
is not true if we think about all the everyday math skills we use. And, of
course, many career fields — from Agriculture to Zoology — use quite a
lot of math. Additionally, in studying math, we learn a way of thinking
that is a valuable transferable skill.
The Magic Key Myth
This myth maintains that there is a magic key or general insight
into understanding all math problems. There is, however, no formula, rule,
or general guideline which will suddenly unlock the mysteries of math. If
there is a key to doing math, it is in overcoming anxiety about the
subject, dispelling restrictive myths, and applying the same effort and
skills you use to do everything else.