Mathematics. The subject that students seem to either love or hate. It’s a science that makes perfect sense or it appears to be random numbers mashed with letters on a squiggly page. You either spend no time at all revising because it comes naturally or you run out of revision booklets because you’ve done that much practice. I was the latter in all of these situations. I hated Maths. I had no natural ability in the subject and I just couldn’t comprehend how you could know that x = 10?! The irony is, I am now studying Mathematics as part of my University degree.
So, I’ve always been terrible at Maths. In Year 7, I got 60% and it’s the one of the highest grades I ever received. I remember sitting mocks at GCSE and scoring 19%...I didn’t know what to do. I needed Maths. I spent the next year doing nothing, and I mean nothing but this one subject, which later had a knock on effect to the rest of my subjects, in the hopes that the hard work would finally pay off. That’s the thing, if you saw my grades and you didn’t know me, you’d think I just needed to work harder. Truth was, I gave my all to this subject. I practiced for 4 hours minimum every day and then late into the night when I came home from school. I was constantly asking questions, praying to understand, doing everything I could and yet A-Levels year one came around and I failed. Well, I didn’t fail. I got a D...but to me, that’s a fail. I was devastated. All that work and no result. I cried for hours and it knocked my academic confidence ridiculously.
However, against everyone’s advice, again, I decided to resit A-Level Maths in order to improve upon my D. I did so in my final year and approached it a little differently this time. I compiled all my “Step-By-Step Examples” into one folder that I carried everywhere (I do mean everywhere – the shops, my friends, the train…even the bath). I studied them meticulously until I felt I understood the theory enough to put it onto paper. I spent every waking hour doing Past Papers, Specimen Papers, Mock Exam papers…ANYTHING I could get my hands on to. From August-December I had already completed every past paper from 2015 all the way back to 1990 (sound insane yet?) but frustratingly I wasn’t getting any better, which led to a little bit of a breakdown to my Maths teacher at the time. I was frustrated that I was pouring my heart into the subject and I still didn’t understand. I was angry that I gave up so many hours to still just see squiggles on a page. I felt humiliated because the rest of my class could do it despite doing half the work so
WHY COULDN’T I!
This is where the best piece of advice I’ve ever learned in regard to a subject you struggle with comes from. I have to say, I rolled my eyes at the time. As I sat working my way through a box of tissues and crying over Integration, she told me that the best way to think of every question I thought I didn’t understand was that:
“It isn’t that you cannot do it, you just cannot do it yet. Can’t is not a word I want to hear ever again.”
Combine a teacher who genuinely gave me the confidence that I could achieve with friends who were willing to give up hours upon hours to simply calm my Maths related breakdowns down and I began to see an improvement. I got 68% in my January mock, and of course I cried –happy tears for the first time ever. I kept trolling through past papers to the point I had reached 1980…the end of any accessible in England. I had done 35 years’ worth of past papers, every single page. I did every question on every website. If I got it wrong, I went back and did it again. All my free periods went on this one subject and when I got home, all my free time did too.
And that’s what I wanted to address. I worked so incredibly hard in my final year to get a grade I was beyond proud of in a subject that had destroyed my academic confidence year upon year. Reflecting now though, it wasn’t healthy. I didn’t take breaks. I was up until 4am trying to work out whether the parabola was meant to be happy or sad. My other subjects fell to the wayside a lot. Luckily for me, they were essay subjects which came a little more naturally to me but I still saw the detrimental impact they had on my final results set. The number of free periods spent on the floor of the study room bawling my heart out because I didn’t understand was beyond insane. I got my grade but I ruined a lot of my mental health for it. I think that’s the thing though. Nobody stopped me. My friends didn’t want to say no incase I screamed in their faces, my teachers just thought I was working hard because my grades were awful and I had to, my parents expected nothing less. Nobody approached me in this web of stress and said “Hey, why not take a break?”
So, from what I learned, what would I say to you when tackling the Monster of Mathematics?
- PRACTICE. I know it is difficult when you do not even know what the question means to try and do practice papers but start as early as you can. 1 question will turn to 2, 2 to 10 and then 10 to almost 40. Maths is a subject that you cannot learn without engaging in the content and your revision just has to be practical.
- ASK. Again, I hated asking adults for help with anything. I thought they’d think I was too stupid to be helped, but that’s why your teachers are there. They’re there to answer anything you do not understand and they want you to succeed. If you’re nervous about asking to their faces, head to a revision class or an after-school club because often if you have a question, someone else will too and these are smaller spaces to tackle uncertainties. If even that makes you anxious, email them.
- TAKE BREAKS. I spent 90% of my life from August-May in a bubble where the focus was this one subject. Yes, it improved my grade but it wasn’t worth how much my other subjects, my health and as ridiculous as it sounds my relationships with my friends suffered. Balance your time with a revision timetable and stick to it. I did have one made up but if I was halfway through a paper, I’d always dedicate the hour I’d said I’d do Modern Studies in to the other half of the paper instead. Be strict with yourself.
- DO NOT STRESS. I’m sure you’ve heard it all before but stress only makes things worse. All those time I was sat on the floor, surrounded by notes upon notes, I wasn’t crying over my inability to do the question. Not really. I was crying over the monster that I’d made the subject to be in my head. I was crying over this idea that I’d created that no matter what I did I was destined to fail and that just isn’t true. I was never going to be a Grade A student in the subject but that didn’t mean I wasn’t going to succeed.
- BE REALISTIC. This sounds a little like a downer but it’s important to do. If you really struggle with the subject, don’t expect to work hard for two months and miraculously understand everything. Accept there will always be questions you cannot do and that is alright. Nobody is asking you to complete the whole paper, pick up marks in the sections you know and fill in the rest with anything you know. That’s important – never leave a question blank. Even if the only thing you think you know feels wrong, put it down. You never know where you’ll pick up marks if it isn’t on the page.
- WRITE OUT YOUR WORKING. In classwork and mock exams, it’s important that teachers can see where you’re going wrong in order to help you get it right next time. Don’t stress if it means you take up more page space, it helps you long term.
Everyone has a subject that they feel just completely defeats them. I wanted to write this because throughout University I’ve discovered there’s a lot of people who Maths is still a foreign language for. The word still sends chills down my spine but I’ve learned to tackle it logically rather than panicking at the sight of an equation. Learn to take your time. Invest yourself in the subject. Set yourself a goal to be motivated to reach. Find people who will support you. Do not get disheartened if you do not succeed immediately. Believe in yourself. Ask for help and most importantly, do not stress. As important as grades are, they’re not more important than your health! And you never know…you might even end up loving the subject. I never thought I could but here I am, studying Calculus and Theories and loving it!!