The side effects of the fixed mathematics ability stigma

Ethan sheds light on how the belief that mathematical ability is equivalent to intelligence affects the confidence of students who are capable of doing well in other subjects, and how math teachers can address this issue.

Illustration by Cayla Basson

Having taught extra mathematics to a lot of my friends in high school, I have often come across the mentality of “I am not a math person” and the belief that their mathematical ability is fixed. Once people struggle at doing mathematics and don not understand a concept, which someone else might have understood quickly, they believe they are destined to not be able to do mathematics. This stretches further to them believing not just that they are bad at math, but they are not smart enough overall. After some work, following from someone in that position, I have also seen how their marks improve drastically in mathematics, and eventually in other academic areas too. Once they have proof for themselves that they are smart enough, the fallacy that many fall into disappears. After that, the more they work at it and inevitably improve, the more their overall confidence improves.

It was such a relief to hear from the parent of a friend, whom I was helping with mathematics, that since they started doing better at mathematics their marks in sciences, languages and every subject which required them applying themselves, improved radically. I noticed a positive change in his confidence and how he approached new academic challenges with a sense of ease instead of one of self doubt.

Illustration by Liani Malherbe

This is what we have been conditioned to in school where we are always told our math and science marks are what we are being tested on and if we don’t do well in these subjects, then we would not be able to do a degree or let alone anything that is valuable. While it is true that some have more of an overall affinity for mathematics and also that some people are more inclined to some math areas than other areas, it is not true that their mathematical ability is equal to their intelligence overall. There are so many avenues to do something smart in, whether it be literature, business or even gastronomy, which are all extremely relevant.

Many people are bottlenecked by this belief that since they cannot do mathematics, all hope is lost in any academic area. Their path to achieving well in some direction can start with tackling their all-or-nothing view of mathematics, which in turn can reveal they have ability in many other areas too.

Ethan Quirke

Undergraduate Student in Computer Science and Mathematics
STELLENBOSCH UNIVERSITY

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