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September 29, 2009

Math Skills 101 Bad Habits

Nick Diaz

“What do you do for a living?” asks someone in casual conversation.


“I’m a middle school math teacher,” I reply.


Groans, gasps, surprise, shock… I’ve grown accustomed to these reactions, and am highly amused by them.




1. You must be some kind of a nut to teach 11- to 13-year-olds anything.

2. You must be some kind of a nut (or nerd, or …) to teach math, of all things.

3. This guy must be really smart, or really dumb (maybe a combination of both…)


Typical follow-up comments:


1. “I was never any good at math.” (Usually uttered with a sense of pride and/or accomplishment).

2. “I hated my math teachers.”

3. “My math teacher(s) was (were) so boring.”

4. “I hate math!”

5. “Will you teach me some math?” (Right here and now? Heck, no!)


The pride exhibited by some people about being “innumerate” is quite entertaining in the short run, and alarming in the long.


Simply put, in order to avoid reaching adulthood in a state of “innumeracy,” one must avoid becoming so as early as elementary and middle school.


At this time, allow me to recommend a book to you, Tentacle readers: Innumeracy - Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences, by John Allen Paulos. Paperback edition are available at most bookstores.


An effective way for young students to avoid innumeracy is simply to take control and learn math, right from the start, by understanding their own math strengths and weaknesses, and by making a commitment to change learning behaviors.


Students, who have problems with math, want to improve their learning; most probably, however, no one has shown them how to change. It isn’t a middle school student’s fault that he or she has not been taught how to study math. Even students taking general study-skills courses are often not taught how to study and learn math.


A student must start out by taking responsibility to change his math-learning weaknesses and to exploit his math-learning strengths. In my long career as a math teacher, I’ve met many a student who decided to assume this responsibility and have learned their math. Such students do not blame teachers, or the math department, or their school setting.


All students must become aware of forces that may well sabotage their math learning. This sabotage may be in the form of procrastinating to protect their self-esteem; such procrastination can easily lead to “learned helplessness.”


Students with learned helplessness, due to previous math failures, have learned not even to try to pass math. By better understanding themselves, such students can guard against the effects of procrastination through the use of successful math study skills.




Students, who feel that conditions beyond their control prevent them from getting good grades, have external control. These students blame teachers, home conditions, or money problems, for their poor grades. They feel they can’t do much about their problems. External students feel their lives are controlled by teachers, outside forces, such as “fate” or the power of other people.


Other students, on the other hand, feel they have the power to control their situation, and this power comes from within. Internal students take responsibility for their success, while external students reject responsibility. Internal students have convinced themselves that they can overcome most academic situations, since results depend on their own behavior.


Internal students accept the responsibility for their behavior and realize that studying today will help them pass the math test scheduled for next week. Internal students can delay immediate rewards; they study tonight for a test tomorrow, instead of going to a party.


Learned helplessness


As students become more external, feeling less in control of their lives, they develop this learned helplessness I’ve mentioned. Learned helplessness means believing that other people (or influences from factors such as teachers, poverty, broken homes, or “the system,”) control what happens to them.


Students who have done poorly in math classes are at risk of developing this learned helplessness. Some students ultimately adopt the attitude of “Why try?”


Total lack of motivation to complete math assignments is a good example of learned helplessness. In the past, students may have completed the math assignments, yet did not get the course grade they had hoped for. This can lead to the “Why try?” syndrome, because they tried several times to be successful in math, and still received a low grade on the test, or the course.


The problem with this thinking is the way these students actually “tried” to do well in the math course. Their ineffective learning processes, lack of anxiety reduction plan, and poor test-taking techniques proved to be their math demise. For them, it was like trying to remove the front axle nut of my Yamaha Venture with a pair of needlenose pliers instead of using the correct 19-millimeter metric socket wrench.


In my next few installments, I’ll try to give the “19-mm socket wrench” version of how a student can bring success into his mathematical learning habits. Those who develop learned helplessness can break this bad habit by putting the needlenose back on the shelf, and taking responsibility as the way to win at math.


Contact me at


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