I must be really dumb! Why am I so stupid at math?

I said those words over and over to myself in high school when it came to algebra. And sadly, I believed them for a long, long time.

Actually, I was a pretty good student in other subjects before I got to algebra. I know I was looking forward to learning it when I first walked into class.

But as the days and weeks went by, and I did not understand it, my self-esteem dropped – sort of like a snowball rolling down a hill.

Teacher Held Up My “F” in Algebra and Told the Whole Class I Was Stupid

One day, I got my first test back. If I had been the only one to see my failing grade, it would have been bad enough, but that wasn’t the case on this particular day.

My teacher decided to call me up and hold up my big red “F” on my paper for the whole class to see.

He said, “You are stupid in math, Pat, and you’ll never get it!”

Wow! As a teacher today, it’s hard to imagine harming a child like that. I remember I sobbed quietly in the bathroom after that class and stayed in my room when I got home from school that day. 

I’m not sure that saying that my teacher “damaged” me, is was close enough to how humiliated I felt. What’s worse is that the pain haunted me for years, and certainly affected my grades in any future math courses.

But I want you to know, that there is a way for you and every student to overcome feeling dumb at math. It works for every subject and once you learn this, you’ll never feel badly about learning again.

After I became a teacher, I was on a quest to make sure that none of my students would ever feel like I did in math.

Once I discovered how to do this for sure, I started using this same method to train other teachers how to help their students learn anything successfully.

Know How your Brain Learns and You Can Do Anything

My secret sauce for overcoming feeling dumb at math or anything else is knowing how your brain learns. In three words – I learned ‘how to learn’.

Now at first, those three words, ‘how to learn’ may not seem like such a big deal. Well, it turns out they are.

The thing I discovered about learning is that it never has anything to do with being smart – it’s always about strategy.

So when you’re feeling down about learning something new, do this. Try getting curious about which learning strategies you can use to empower yourself.

Honestly, if someone else understands the subject you’re wondering about, then so can you – you just need to know their techniques.

Ask them, how do you do that? Ask that person which learning style they are using to understand that material. Ask if they will show you what specifically happens when they study? Find out what they think about in order to remember the material for a test.

You may be wondering whether I chose to learn math before I started training teachers how to train their students to be successful in math.

No, I did not. Turns out that math was not my calling – but learning how to learn was.

Before I learned what I discuss next, I want you to know, this is how my damage that one teacher did when he held up my failing grade in front of the whole class. I painfully flunked my way through the required math courses in college. I had the same result when I had to take a teacher math course in order to become a reading teacher in graduate school.

I felt terrible when I barely passed teacher math and but knew I would never use it in my chosen career.

But, after I became a teacher, I made a different choice. My teacher training was great at telling me “what to teach” but not in showing me how kids actually learn. 

So, instead of learning math back then, I chose to find out how people learn. I knew if I could unlock those secrets then I could teach myself and others anything. 

Once I discovered the neuroscience behind how the brain works and how it learns, it opened up a whole life. It’s really empowering to know that you can take on any subject, in school or in your career, and have certainty ahead of time you’re going to be successful.

Just asking the question about how memory works, and finding out how learning occurs, makes all the difference. 

I knew that if I could master that, then no matter what I wanted to learn, I’d be successful and there would be no more guessing, or feeling badly about learning.

When I first started teaching, I saw students struggle to learn in some subjects and was absolutely motivated to stop that struggle. I vowed that no student of mine was ever going to have the pain I experienced. 

I could not assume, like my teacher did with me, that they were stupid. That was simply not an option because I would never harm a child like that.

So, I got really curious about how people learn in order to find better ways to help my students succeed. And it worked!

My students began to succeed in whatever they learned during the time they were with me, and then I began tutoring students who had remarkable success too.

Teaching Teachers So They Can Show Their Students How to Learn Math or Anything Else

Following that, I trained teachers. They received academic credit for my courses on learning how to learn using learning style strategies.

I’ll never forget the first time I asked a teacher taking one of my training classes to put an algebra problem on the board.

Then I asked him to teach me how to solve the problem. (Gutsy, huh? Good thing he could not see me quivering).

When it was clear that his “teaching” wasn’t quite cutting it for me, I showed him how to teach me using the ‘how to learn’ strategies I knew would work.

Voila! I solved the algebra problem– and yes, it’s true, I felt a tad nervous because of those horrible words I’d carried for years that scarred me (“Pat you are stupid in math and will never get it!”).

The truth is that doing this empowering exercise showed me I could help anyone overcome feeling stupid about math. 

After all, it is never really about the math – it’s about not knowing the ‘how to learn’ strategies for doing the math. And anyone can learn if they know the strategies for learning.

Finally, on that day, 20 years later, I forgot all my teacher’s cruelty and decided nothing was beyond me when it came to learning.

From then on, I knew I could shortcut that time lapse for anyone and showing people how to learn would ensure their success in school and in their career.

Why Do Kids Think They Are Dumb at Anything?

The only reason kids or adults think they are stupid when it comes to learning is because they don’t know how their brain works. No one ever showed them how.

That’s how kids develop the idea that they are dumb at math (or anything else). When learning suddenly gets hard, because it’s not concrete or easy to understand, teachers don’t know how to teach, and kids don’t know how to learn.

But what if they suddenly discovered how their brains work?

The world opens up for them. If you learn how your brain works, you know how to learn anything – any time anywhere.

No more dumb at math feelings, no more saying you’re stupid at anything – because the truth is you’re not. You just need to discover the system for how to learn, and voila, you feel on top of the world because you can learn anything.

So let’s see what the benefits of learning how to learn are.

The Benefits of Learning How to Learn

  1. You Are Confident Because You Know Which Learning Style Works Best For You

Did you know that not everyone learns in the same way?

People generally have 3 different types of learning preferences – i.e. the way they process and remember new information.

Some people are visual learners – they can retain images and translate information into mental pictures in their heads that are easier to recall. 

Others learn better by listening to information (auditory learners), while some individuals learn better when they’re moving around, taking things apart and putting them back together, actively interacting with the environment (kinesthetic learners). 

Knowing your learning style helps you figure out how you understand, retain, and recall information best. Once you understand this, you can find ways to combine learning styles, and accelerate your learning.

This means that, rather than dedicating hours and hours to a type of learning that doesn’t get through to you, you can optimize your learning in the way that best feeds information to your brain.

Depending on your learning style, you could be doing a chunk of your learning listening to recordings, or drawing mind-maps, or through interactive online activities. It also lets you play off your strengths and know where to minimize your weaknesses.

Learning becomes easier and more fun when you know how to learn.

  1. You Know How to Retain Information Longer

Have you ever faced a situation where you spent hours upon hours stuck in your books, practicing your math or reading the text, only to look back later and realize in despair that you don’t recall anything you just reviewed?

That’s because your brain doesn’t stay in the same gear the whole time you’re learning. 

One professor, Dr. Oakley, describes the two modes the brain uses when learning – the “focus” and “diffuse” modes. 

During the “focus” mode, you are fully concentrating on the study material – you’re picking up patterns, mentally storing them for recall. Equally as important, though, is the “diffuse” mode. This is when your brain is resting, allowing the information to settle.

Think about it like growing a plant. It’s not going to grow very well if you’re constantly overwhelming it with water and fertilizer and sunlight. However, give it ample amounts, and then let it process it in its own time, and it’ll start blossoming healthily in no time.

This leads into our next point – 

  1. You Know When to Take a Break

Have you ever had an aha moment, when an epiphany or a realization startles you when you’re in the middle of taking a shower or brushing your teeth, or something else seemingly mundane?

During such times, the brain is in “diffuse” mode – also called “default” mode by cognitive scientists. 

Your mind is able to wander in this mode, and because your brain isn’t zeroed in on retaining every little detail, it can exercise itself and make connections between the information you have already retained, subconsciously processing it and letting it root a little deeper in your memory.

Thus, it’s not just good to take a break in between learning, but necessary to. 

It actually helps you retain information better and make cognitive connections between the information, which while in the “focus” mode – when you’re giving so much of your attention to learning the material right in front of you – you may overlook.

  1. You Know How to Cut Down on the Procrastination

We all know the feeling of remembering a ton of work that we have to get done – studying for a test, doing homework for a subject we feel we’re absolutely horrible at – and just wanting to bury our head in the ground and hope it all goes away.

This does nothing but prolong the problem, though.

The thing is, when we dread or dislike something, it triggers the parts of the brain that register pain. Now, if we are continually associating pain to learning, we’re not going to get very far getting anything done.

So, knowing how the “focus” and the “diffuse” modes of the brain work, you’ll know how to schedule breaks in between stretches of studying – Dr. Oakley recommends periods of 25 minutes working followed by a break – where you do something you enjoy.

Listen to some music, play with your puppy, watch a YouTube video or two.

This helps make learning a much more pleasant task, rather than forcing yourself into hours of “focus” mode, which does not actually give your brain enough time to allow the information to settle, and just ends up making you miserable because you’re not enjoying yourself.

Instead of using up all that time to show a little bit of progress (counting all the time you spent just trying to hype yourself up to get started in the first place), learning in stretches of half an hour and rewarding yourself with something you enjoy after can immensely improve your progress as well as your enjoyment of learning.

  1. You Know How to Improve Your Memory

Many students – myself included, at some point or the other – has tried to overcome challenging study material by memorizing.

After all, one of the foundations we have for studying is rooted in memorizing, right? When we were younger, we’d memorize letters of the alphabet, numbers, the continents, the seasons.

But learning becomes increasingly more complex the older we grow. And the word “memorizing” is not really helpful – you have to understand how to improve your memory overall, and then to apply your learning.

Over time, there are more things we need to remember. The dates and important events of the French Revolution. That one particular quote from To Kill the Mockingbird that would perfectly support your character analysis.

And of course, all those dreaded math formulas that make math seem unbearable. 

The mistake most of us make when it comes to recalling information like this is just that – that we try to memorize, instead of understand and process. 

This is where chunking comes in.

Neuroscience has proven that the practice of chunking, which involves breaking a big volume of information into smaller, bite-size, more manageable pieces, can greatly improve our ability to recall information. 

By processing smaller chunks of information, which we sort by identifying patterns – things which are similar to each other, related to each other, etc. – we are able to retain and recall information much more effectively.

Then, by building on these chunks, little by little, as you sort and process more information, you’ll be much more likely to recall information with ease. This is because you have trained your brain to handle massive amounts of information by breaking it up into manageable chunks that are easier to process.

And once you have that sound foundation, which your brain examined through a thorough sense-marking process, your memory of what you learn will expand exponentially.

Are you getting more confident that you never have to feel dumb at math ever again?

  1. You Know How to Boost Your Confidence

Perhaps this is the most important benefit of learning how to learn, because after all, if you are confident in yourself and your learning abilities, you can embrace a world of knowledge and make it your own. You’ll enrich your problem-solving skills and wisdom, memory and ability, and helping others too.

Just like I learned to relearn the things I found challenging in school by understanding how the brain and memory works,  you can as well! By knowing how to learn, you’re able to empower yourself and confidently tackle things you previously thought you were weak at, or were afraid of.

Not only does this boost your confidence and self-esteem, but it can also make you more eager and interested in learning, giving you the motivation to make you more productive, and dedicated to learning.

So if you’re thinking “I must be really dumb” because you’re struggling to master math, or science, or any subject for that matter, it’s time to flip that thinking a hundred and eighty degrees – you’re not stupid, you just don’t know how to learn yet.

It’s never too late to start learning how to learn – as you can see from my experience. I was able to go from someone who struggled so much with math, to someone who teaches professionals how to teach math so that their students learn. And the truth is, I don’t even have to know anything about math to show someone how to learn it.

Once you know you know how to learn, you can master even the subjects that foiled you early on! No more feeling dumb at math and you can don your new superpower – learning how to learn!

pat wymanPat Wyman is the CEO of HowtoLearn.com and America’s Most Trusted Learning Expert. She’s a mom, golden retriever lover and the author of more than 15 books including, Amazing Grades, Smarter Squared and The One-Minute Gratitude Journal: For the Moments That Matter.

Her mission is ensuring that you become a successful, life-long learner. You are invited to take the FREE Learning Styles Quiz at HowtoLearn.com.