Professor Kate Poirier | D071 | Fall 2023

Assignment: Are you bad at math? Really???

Comment due on the OpenLab Monday, October 2

“I’m bad at math.”

Everyone on earth, probably


“I’m bad at math.” This is something I’ve heard from a number of students over the years. It’s devastating to me to hear anyone say this about themselves… let alone my own students… in the middle of actually solving a math problem.

Here’s a big secret: I’ve said this about myself. I have a Ph.D. in math. I write math research papers and get invited to give fancy math research presentations. I’ve taught hundreds (maybe thousands?) of students math in my career. And I have said this about myself tons of times over the years.

Here’s another (not-so-big) secret: I’m bad at pushups. I don’t have a Ph.D. in pushups! I can barely do one pushup! I’m, like, definitely, objectively really really bad at pushups! But it doesn’t make me feel bad when I can’t do a pushup. I really don’t care. So what’s different about math?

There is something unique about math: it can make all of us feel bad about ourselves sometimes. The wife of my good friend (who got his Ph.D. in math the same week I got mine) says this: “You mathematicians… if you do understand something, you think it’s because it’s obvious and easy… if you don’t understand something, you think it’s because it’s impossible and you’re too dumb. When do you ever get to feel good about yourselves?” Doing math can be very humbling. (If you’ve never been challenged doing math, let me know and I’ll find a challenge for you.)

There are lots of intersecting reasons that so many people think they’re bad at math, even when they’re not…especially when they’re not. For example, do this right now: do a Google image search for “mathematician.” Scroll until you see someone who looks like you. Can you find anyone? I haven’t seen all of your faces, but I’m willing to bet none of you look like this bro:

Portrait of an old fashioned white guy in a big white wig


Choose one of the following prompts. Then write a response of about 5 sentences and drop it in the comments below.

  1. Read an article on “math anxiety” (for example this one). Math anxiety is a real thing and there have been tons of articles written on it! Summarize the article. What parts of it resonated the most with you? What is a situation during which you remember experiencing math anxiety in your life? Were you able to overcome it? How? Have your feelings about math changed as you’ve gotten older?
  2. Go back to the results of your Google image search for “mathematician.” Find a picture of a mathematician who looks like you. What is their name? Research this person’s biography and summarize it for us. What did you find most interesting about their life? What is a question you would ask this person about their life if you could?
  3. Okay, let’s get personal! Have you ever thought, “I’m bad at math,” yourself? Have you ever said it out loud? How often does this thought come into your head? In what circumstances? What do you do when it happens? Have any of your friends or classmates ever said this about themselves to you? What would you tell your friend if they said “I’m bad at math” to you? What do you think makes people think they’re bad at math? What do you do to challenge these thoughts? How can we support people when they feel like this? (Bonus: respond to someone else’s comment on this prompt; be nice.)

If your response is too long for a comment or if you want to include pictures (especially for prompt #2), feel free to submit your own new post. Use the category Bad at math and copy the link into the comments below.

You will earn participation credit for your comment.

Back to pushups

I mentioned in my introduction that I run a lot. Only recently have I tried to incorporate strength training into my program. I’m still pretty weak, but I’ve come a long way! I still can’t really do a pushup, but I’m starting to get better at planks at least and, honestly, I’m really proud of myself!

So here is one more question for you: why do you think am I talking so much to you about pushups in a math class???

Animated gif of Homer Simpson doing one-arm pushups in the kitchen with Maggie on his back, grunting and saying "Strength! Agility!"


  1. Brandon Payne

    After reading the Article “Math anxiety”, I can say that math anxiety may not be real, but exam anxiety can play a role. It all results back to preparation and actually studying for an exam and making it a want to be better. What resonates with me most in the article is “The idea that math ability is mostly generic is one dark facet of a larger fallacy that intelligence is mostly genetic.” This was a little motivation for me to keep trying hard and to study longer to achieve grades that need to be worked for.

    I experienced math anxiety during almost every math exam. I think its just the excitement to want to do well that I may end up forgetting what I study. I try to overcome it by preparing longer and and repeat until it becomes embedded.  

    A mathematician that may look like me is Terrence Blackman. He’s a little older, but he is from my country. Terrence Blackman had the ability to spread his knowledge throughout numerous schools and Institutions, including MIT which is one of the greatest institutes for math graduates. One question I would ask Terrence is what helped him to not fall into the trap of; “I’m bad at math”?

    Personally, I’ve had many occasions where I thought I was terrible at math. Those thoughts I would keep internal as a challenge for myself to get better. I don’t think I have the ability to publicly announce my temporary weakness. This thought would come to my head when an understanding of a problem takes longer than I think it should be. All I can do in circumstances like this is try and try until I understand it. No classmate of mine has ever said it, but my brother has. I would say he never had an interest in numbers, nor tried to tackle his challenges when it comes to math. I would say that he is proficient when it comes to money. I always tell my brother to just challenge himself with algebra first and see what happens. I think we can support people by finding what their struggle is and finding a way to solve it.

    I think you’re talking about push ups so much because you hate it lol. Maybe have nightmares about doing them. Opposite of you, I hate long distance running. Some advice, you can start with assistant pushups, push up planks, and wall push ups to build up your pectoral and shoulder muscles to be a beast. Overall, I think you saw the challenge of your struggle and you’re killing it now. 

  2. Qing Chen(Charlotte)

    I read the article titled “The Myth of ‘I’m Bad at Math'” from The Atlantic, and it discussed the concept of math anxiety and the pervasive belief that some people are inherently bad at math. The article argued that this belief is harmful and largely unfounded, as math is a skill that can be developed with the right mindset and approach.

    What resonated with me the most was the idea that many people develop math anxiety due to negative experiences or attitudes towards math during their formative years. It reminded me of a situation in high school when I struggled with a particularly challenging math class and felt overwhelmed by the subject. However, I was able to overcome it by seeking extra help from my teacher and changing my perspective on math from something I was inherently bad at to a skill I could improve with practice and effort.

    As I’ve gotten older, my feelings about math have evolved. I now see math as a valuable tool that can be applied in various aspects of life, and I no longer label myself as “bad at math.” Instead, I approach it with a growth mindset, believing that I can continue to improve my math skills with practice and perseverance. I think people often think they’re bad at math because of past negative experiences or a fixed mindset that they can’t change, but with the right support and mindset shift, anyone can become more confident in their math abilities.

  3. Emily Murphy

    So, funnily enough, the sentiment of “I’m bad at math” actually means a great deal to me, both personally and in my professional life. My parents are both math and science people; my mom is a mathematician. Growing up, math was easy for me most of the time, so my experience with thinking I was absolutely terrible at math didn’t start until college. College was challenging for me for many reasons, but I quit pursuing my math major halfway through because I had told myself over and over again that I was terrible at math. I thought I’d reached the limit of my mathematical ability. Being back in school now, I see that wasn’t the case, but it was real then.

    Fast forward to my first year of teaching 4th grade — a grade level I’d never taught before. Over the school year, I not only realized that I actually love teaching math, but I especially loved working in small groups with my IEP students. Every single one of those students thought about math in a completely unique way. But I worked with one student who always told me, “I’m so bad at math. I can’t get it because I’m just stupid.” Hearing a nine-year-old say that almost every day for an entire school year was not only heartbreaking, it was infuriating. When I went to observe how her past teachers taught their current students, I saw in most classes that kids were terrified of making mistakes and getting things wrong. It was almost like the school was priming them from such an early age to believe that math is just something they’re not good at. Which is wild!

    From a very early age, math curriculum is centered around problem-solving in real-life situations. Which is what it should be for! But to not leave room for making mistakes in the classroom is to imply that there’s no room for making mistakes in real life. To believe you’re bad at math from an early age is to believe you’re bad at working through problems, which causes SO many issues in the long run. Much of the goal behind my career in primary and secondary math education is to work towards creating a curriculum and learning environment where being “bad at math” doesn’t exist. If we can work towards achieving that, we’d not only see a rise in mathematical proficiency, but we’d also find a world filled with more creative problem-solvers and, honestly, more self-confidence.

  4. Shaolong

    I have ever thought countless times, “I’m bad at math.” I dare not say it out unless in my mind. This thought comes into my head when I encounter some math that is really incomprehensible, especially when my classmates can do that problem. When this feeling happens, I just let it alone. Because no matter what I think, it won’t change and just accept the fact that I can’t do well in every part of math. Many of my friends also said this about themselves. I listened to their feelings but no matter what, I can change the fact with few words.

    I think you talk so much about this because we all are not omnipotent, there’s always one thing we don’t do well, then we said we are bad at math in a math class is also acceptable.

  5. Ethan Lo

    Looking back at my life, I’m surprised to see that math anxiety has shaped a large part of my academic and professional career. While I enjoyed math in middle school, a near failing grade in high school calculus taught me the wrong lesson – that I was good at math… until it got hard. In retrospect, it was definitely just that the study habits that got me through middle school didn’t work in high school – nothing about being good or bad at math.

    However, with this mindset, while I took additional college courses in math, I petered out and looked to avoid these courses whenever possible: in particular, I chose to take an operating systems class instead of linear algebra. This had strong and unexpected reverberations in my career, as I always felt limited as a software engineer, lacking the fundamental knowledge required for expansion into data science and machine learning.

    Eventually I got so irritated about feeling that way that I decided to actually do something about it. Hence why I’m here, and why I’m also taking linear algebra this semester.

    • Tamika

      I can relate as well I use to enjoy math as well until it became harder after Trigonometry class.

  6. Wellington D Verduga

    I have said on multiple occasions that “I am bad at math.”

    In Ecuador, we tend to be more strict with math during high school. Even though I didn’t finish high school there, I always thought that I had better math. I carried that false confidence all the way until I applied to Citytech (a bad idea since I went around 3 years without studying, I was just focusing on working). I barely passed the placements and even had to take catch-up math classes to stay in the program. Around that time I was working my full time while studying full time.

    To make matters worse, in the first semester, I agreed to take 18 credits in the CET program (a terrible idea). I could barely focus on my classes and the next few semesters did horrible in math. It destroyed my confidence. Thankfully, I took a “break” and now that I am back, I am taking it easy. I am aware of my limitations although I try not to be bound by them. Being aware of how I tend to understand math has also helped me as well.

    I usually tend to understand less the theory or derivations, but I feel more confident once a formula is given and an example exercise is done. To anybody thinking they are bad at math, I would tell them to focus more on the parts they are good at. You may not be able to understand it in a certain way but thankfully there may be different angles in which you can tackle a problem that may be more akin to your way of processing math. Don’t give up. Persevere.

  7. Shawn Suraj

    Srinivasa Ramanujan was an amazing math genius from India who lived a long time ago, from 1887 to 1920. He was born in a place called Erode in India. Ramanujan’s life is special because he did incredible things in math, especially in a part of math called “number theory.”

    Even though he lived a short life, Ramanujan did a lot for math. He worked on different types of math, like very long number patterns, number theory, special shapes, and other tricky math stuff. His work on certain types of math, like “partition theory” and “mock modular forms,” was really important and changed the way people thought about math.

    What’s really fascinating about Ramanujan is that he could figure out really complicated math problems and come up with new rules and formulas that no one had ever seen before. He wrote down all his ideas in notebooks, and many of the things he wrote were so clever that it’s like they came out of thin air! These notebooks have thousands of math ideas that he thought of, and many of them are now proven to be true and are still used in math today. Ramanujan was a math wizard, and his way of thinking about math was like no one else’s.

    If I could ask Srinivasa Ramanujan one question about his life, it would be, “Could you describe your thought process or inspiration for some of your most remarkable mathematical discoveries?

  8. Shawn Suraj


  9. Tamika

    Yes, I have thought about I am bad at math on multiple occasions after takingTrigonometry class. I have said I’m bad at math out loud a few times, maybe once or twice. Honestly, this thought comes to my head a lot nowadays especially when I took Calculus class last semester that’s when it all started. Usually, this happens when I’m doing my Homework. Honestly I normally pray I get it right. A lot of my friends feel the same way towards math like I do if not similar. I would tell them to watch videos on YouTube there are tons of experts who post different subjects and/or topics so you can be able to learn step by step if you encounter any problems. YouTube helped me a lot and would tell them they should try it or find a tutor that fits your needs.

  10. Erick Hidalgo

    After reading the article I feel like I resonated most with when they’re say some students think they’re either “smart or not” and I do feel like that sometimes after seeing how my classmates perform better than me, so sometimes i feel like they’re just smarter than me. I’ve never really experienced math anxiety in my life. During exams maybe a little bit but it’s nothing too crazy. A little math anxiety is normal for an exam. When i have a little bit of anxiety, I just have to myself to lock in and try my best, Its better than nothing. My feelings about math have changed over the years because it has gotten harder after my first year of college and it just makes me rethink sometimes.

    The mathematician I found is Yitang Zhang. Zhang was born in Shanghai, China, with his ancestral home in Pinghu. He is a Chinese American mathematician primarily working on number theory and a professor of mathematics at the University of California, Santa Barabra since 2015. He previously worked at the University of New Hampshire as a lecturer, Zhang submitted a paper to the Annals of Mathematics in 2013 which established the first finite bound on the least gap between consecutive primes that is attained infinitely often. His work led to a 2013 Ostrowski Prize, a 2014 Cole Prize, a 2014 Rolf Schock Prize, and a 2014 MacArthur Fellowship. What I found interesting is how he found a proof of Pythagorean theorem at only 9 years old. What I would ask him is, what made him enjoy math so much, that made him pursue his career.

    Lastly, yes I have thought that I’m bad at math. I’ve never said it out loud, but I think I am sometimes. This thought comes to my head when I struggle to solve a problem or two on homework or on exams. When it happens, I have a bad habit of giving up on the problem. Any of my classmates haven’t told me they’re bad at math but I do have friends who have told me they’re bad at math. I will tell them what I’ve been telling myself, to keep practicing and ask your classmates for help. I think what makes people think they’re bad at math is the same thing that makes me feel that way, when they struggle often solving problems and seeing others have no problem solving those problems. To challenge these thoughts you have to lock in on yourself mentally while you’re in the moment and try your best and as always ask for help. We can support people who feel this way by helping them and referring them other resources in school.

    This is Yitang Zhang:

    ” alt=”A Math Genius Who Made Major Breakthrough About Prime Numbers Just Won …”>

  11. Allan Yunayev

    The time I had an “I’m bad at math” moment was in 10th grade when I was taking geometry I failed the first-semester class and was put into a non-regents course for it. I had a belief that If the teacher was bad I would put low effort into that class. He was probably the worst teacher I ever had but I also used him as a scapegoat to just not keep doing assignments and classwork so whenever I had an exam, I would just stress out and think I was bad at math. After that year I had to take pm school and I was one of few people who took the regents and passed.

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