Math Myths   back

The University of Alabama
Center for Academic Success
124 Osband

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 another.

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.