How To Do Math

First thing you want to do is whisper to yourself, ďI can do this.Ē

Second, is to collect helpful resources.

Third, is to learn the rules.

Fourth, is learn how you do math.

Fifth, is to be careful.

Sixth, try to keep it impersonal.

A Caveat:

If you do have a learning disability, or if you think you might have a math processing problem, please check for a diagnosis. At most schools, the school psychologist is trained in diagnosing learning disabilities. The good news is that there is support for you. And there isn’t the stigma with learning disabilities that were prevalent only a couple of decades ago. Higher institutions of learning (colleges and universities) are set up to help you with the resources you need to succeed academically. So, if you suspect yourself of having a learning disability, please seek help.

Real life example: When my friend and I were seniors at Pomona College and we were studying at the science library, a freshman started talking to us. He seemed like a hard-working student, yet he was talking about how he didn’t have enough time to complete tests in class. So, my friend recommended he visit the educational psychologist on campus.

A few weeks later we crosse paths again and he told us he learned he had a processing difficulty and was allowed an accommodation for tests. Fast forward a few years and I saw in my alumni magazine that the guy graduated valedictorian! True story!


Though there are hindrances to learning math, you donít want to be a hindrance to yourself. You want to encourage yourself as much as you can. You neednít yell at the rooftops that youíre a dominant mathematician. Instead, you can gently and silently encourage yourself that you can surmount the obstacles, problems, and questions math sets in your way.

Recognize that sometimes it will take time to learn a certain process or become proficient at a certain topic. Comparing yourself to faster learners is only going to slow down your learning process. 

Give yourself time to learn and be gentle to yourself along the way of  your learning how to do math. This will help you improve how you do math. And your relationship with math.

Collect Helpful Resources

This can take a variety of forms. For some, it will be contacting a few peers in your class so that you can form an informal study group or brain trust. You can lean on one another when you encounter a difficult, complex, or tricky topic. Sometimes it is reassuring to know that others are struggling just as you are. Other times, it might just be to check out if you had homework or not.

Another resource could be a calculator. Though some teachers are decidedly anti-calculator, most real-life situations will allow the use of a calculator, especially jobs. Most engineers I’ve spoken with even have compilers to sort out the number-crunching.

If a teacher counters that you should be able to complete a calculus question in the Amazon Rainforest without a calculator, you need to ask yourself why the hell youíd be doing calculus in a rainforest. I don’t want to put my energy here, but as much as I do want students to learn how to rely on themselves for learning math, helpful technology does have its role.

Other helpful resources could be a teacher/mentor/tutor at your school. Seek help and you will find help.

Unspeakable Resources

Oh, and the unspeakable resources: answer keys. If need be, you can resort to Chegg, Slader, Photomath, Mathway, Math47, etc. Keep in mind that they are tools to help. If you do use them overmuch, youíll develop a dependency and the withdrawal from such an addiction is a long, hard, road. Use only in an emergency.

For answer keys, I’d recommend setting limits. For example, you might limit yourself to at most 2 problems per homework. Or, 10 answers/week. As answer keys can quickly become a crutch, use only in rare cases. Think FRODO from LOTR. He thought wearing the ring was a good idea in difficult times. Then, he started encountering ring-wraiths. Same will happen to you if you rely too much on answer keys. What was once a dream can become a nightmare, especially in your long-term relationship with math.

Notes About Your Teacher

Keep in mind that your teacher is like your boss. For better or worse, you need to adapt your math style to their wants. So, if your teacher wants you to box your answers, box your answers. If they want you to show all your work, show all your work. You want all the credit for doing the work and presenting your work and answers in the format your teacher wants just makes sense.

Many math teachers, due to time constraints, teach only one way to complete a math problem. While most are open to other methods so long as basic math rules are followed, a few see alternative methods as sacrilege. And, like dogmatic zealots, will purge heterodox approaches with an enthusiasm bordering on mania.

Only in rare cases are teachers as dogmatic as described above, but you will learn about your particular teacher’s preferences over time. If your teacher will allow only their way for a specific type of problem, do it their way. As much as you want understanding, you still want the credit you deserve, or at the very least, to pass your math class.

Just as a sidenote: most math teachers would round 89.5 to 90, except when it comes to grading. Ask them: Why is that?

Better, yet, don’t. If that’s the teacher they are, know that beforehand and earn the 90.

Learn The Rules Of Math

A few students Iíve worked with donít understand PEMDAS and how itís employed. They just do math the way theyíve been doing it for years and curse when they arrive at a wrong answer.

When you make a mistake you have an opportunity to learn a new approach. As frustrating as it is to arrive at a wrong answer, it’s a sign that you can seek a new approach. For some, it’s asking help so that a peer, mentor, or teacher can point out what’s wrong.

The two most common mistakes Iíve seen are not distributing negative signs correctly and not distributing fractions/division correctly. Iíll explain this in a later post.

A lot of your troubles with math could be a misunderstanding or misapplication of fundamentals. The good news is that it’s not hard to fix. It will just take time to incorporate these changes into your math game.

Learn How You Learn Math Best and Perform Math Well

Do math like you would practice a sport or an instrument. Only an insane sports coach would have one practice a week where youíd train for 7 hours and no other practices.


Instead, in sports & music (and in math), itís the everyday or almost as frequent application to your endeavor that helps you improve. Repeated application in a regular manner is what adds up over time. This is the same for math as it is in almost every human endeavor.

And as glamorous and exciting as a cram session can seem, donít do it except in dire circumstances. 

Instead, do a little bit every day or every other day. It keeps your head in the game. Thatís important. Think about doing math like keeping in math shape. Thatís your paradigm for practicing math.

Take Care of Yourself

Over the past couple of decades, sleep deprivation has become a badge of honor. As a symbol of toughness.

Thatís foolhardy. Not only does sleep deprivation cause cognitive impairment, it darkens your outlook and leads to emotional dysregulation.

Instead, make sure you sleep enough. Adolescents tend to need 7-9 hours of sleep daily. Get that for yourself.

For those who say ďPshawĒ to this, claiming they only need 4-5 hours/night, do this test:

Sleep a few nights without an alarm or other external source to wake you up. Or, ask yourself why you sleep longer when you can, such as on the weekends? Itís because your body knows it needs sleep. Let your body sleep as long as it needs.

How Long To Do Math

Know your threshold for doing math effectively. Most students I know at a higher math level work only an hour or so at a time on math. They know intuitively that they need a break for at least 5-10 minutes every hour they work. And thatís fine.

So, find your level. And check in with yourself to see if youíve reached your saturation point. If so, walk away from your math work for a few minutes. You can return in a few minutes after youíve had a break.

Dont Take Math Personally

This is a point Iím recommending to myself as much as other math students. Often we want to scapegoat someone for our troubles and we blame the teacher.

Even if the teacher is to blame, this blaming is unhelpful. Instead, look for a solution to the problem. Find a math helpmate you can rely on to brainstorm possible solutions to math problems.

Be Careful!

Often, students are making mistakes not through ignorance, but rather carelessness. If thereís one thing to be in math, itís careful. Second, itís to be determined, but care is the more important of the two.

If youíre careful, you only have to do a math problem once.

Good luck in all of your math endeavors!


By Martin

Martin McSweeney is a National Merit Finalist, Pomona College Graduate, and member of MENSA. He has worked at the Center for Talented Youth (Loyola Marymount University campus); Upward Bound (Harvey Mudd campus); various test prep companies; and Whittier High School. Now, Martin helps students of all abilities improve their relationship with math.