I have math anxiety, and probably what is now officially known as dyscalculia. It's like the numbers equivalent of dyslexia. Granted, this is not an official diagnosis, but I'd bet a good wager if the term had been in use when I was in elementary or secondary school, I'd have perfectly fit the criteria for this actual cognitive disability. I did not math good. But after I graduated from high school, numbers didn't seem to matter super much, and I've gotten by, scoring an honours degree in English literature and working for a few years as a newspaper reporter, among other random jobs, like milking cows, serving coffee, and hanging out as an extra on movie sets, none of which required any numerical abilities.
But... I've decided I am going to become a psychologist.
And to get a psych degree, even an undergraduate degree in psychology, one needs to be proficient in math in order to take the required statistics and research classes (not to mention actually making use of statistics and formulas in doing research, especially at the graduate level). I have every intention of going to graduate school, and my main area of interest is health psychology (behavioural medicine) and neuroscience. Having never been strong in math or sciences in high school, though, I've come to realize that I need to brush up, and fast. Also, feeling anxious about math (say, when trying to determine the tip at a restaurant while everyone is getting impatient) and generally feeling disabled when it comes to this area of learning, I've always wanted to brush up my skills and get an A in math. The question is, can I do it?
Are some people just bad at math?
Maybe you're one of those people who just "gets" math. If that's the case, you can stop reading now because the rest of this will be irrelevant, and also because I hate your guts. If you're a sorry sap like me, though, who has always shuddered at the thought of doing word problems and couldn't have been happier to barely pass Math 11 and never look back, then we're in this together, and I welcome you along for the ride. I don't believe kids who were bad at math in school are destined to struggle with numbers for the rest of their lives. I believe our brains just needed more time to develop in certain ways, and at some point as adults, when we're more confident, when we can work at our own pace, and, most importantly, when we have a strong intrinsically motivated reason for doing so, we can start fresh and become good with numbers. I really believe anyone can, with enough time and effort.
I'm going to re-wire my brain to become like a super computer, using the knowledge I've gained in Psych 101 on how to learn and retain information, and by taking a free math upgrading course through my local school district. And as a supplement, I'm going to use the phenomenal (and free!) Khan Academy, which is a website that offers thousands of tutorials and practice quizzes for preschool right through pre-calculus math. Isn't the Internet wonderful?
How to learn math from the beginning, regardless of your age
I figure the first step in laying a foundation for math is to learn the times table, 1 through 12. This is sort of like learning the alphabet when learning to read and write. (Of course, this is assuming adding and subtracting 1 through 10 is already learned by rote. If not, I recommend starting with learning this first.) To learn the times table, it's actually helpful to learn to count in multiples so that you really grasp the concept of multiplication (eg. 7, 14, 28, 36, 42, etc.) Multiplication is essentially just lightning-fast addition (and, of course, division is just lightning-fast subtraction). For example, if 5 X 5 = 25, this just means five fives, or 5 + 5 + 5 + 5 + 5. It seems obvious to anyone who knows how to multiply, even from the word "multiply," that this is what's happening, yet as a small child learning the times table by rote, I actually didn't get this concept. All I knew was how to parrot back an answer that I'd learned to memorize. Of course, this didn't do me much good as I progressed to more difficult math.
So now that I'm starting again from scratch, I'm learning my times table again, but I'm playing around with it, learning it by rote, but also by counting in multiples, and learning little tricks, so that the idea is fully lodged in my brain.
Most importantly, I'm going at my own pace, and not letting myself get anxious or feel bad for getting any answers wrong. I don't chastise myself for being stupid or slow, and I consciously acknowledge that I'm learning something new, much the way someone would learn a new language as an adult. There WILL be mistakes made. That's how learning happens. It's important to let yourself learn at a pace and in a setting that allows you to be relaxed and even have a bit of fun, without feeling self-conscious or anxious.
Begin with the times table, and then progress to fractions. More on this later.
In the meantime, here's a neat little trick for learning the nine times table up to 10. And here's a video that explains how to quickly learn all the numbers up to 10: