Egirl Team

AddedMonday, April 8, 2019 at 9:17 AM

I'm having trouble in math – what can I do?


I have a math teacher that I really don’t understand and I’m not doing as well in his class. I’ve always been pretty good at math, and I was thinking about majoring in engineering when I get to college. He said maybe engineering isn’t for me because I’m having trouble with the class. I never thought I was a bad student before. Is my teacher right? How important is math for engineering? Do you have any tips for how I can start understanding the material?

Related to Difficult Classes, Engineering Skills, Math & Science, Self Doubt
  • Urbashi Mitra , USC Viterbi School of Engineering
    Answered Monday, April 8, 2019 at 10:45 AM

    Dear You-Can-Do-Math-too,

    Mathematics, like many acquired skills, requires practice. This is true of mastering cartwheels, baking, woodworking, painting – I could go on. This is also true for reading and for language in general, the more exposure we have, the better we are. We rarely tell people to give up on reading if they struggle with it, we encourage them to keep at it because it is so important – but mathematics and technology are also important and there will come a time when STEM competence will be essential to daily living, whether you choose to be an engineer or not.

    So – practice is important. Study as many problems as you can, work as many problems as you can. This is another language too! Without knowing your particular subject or your grade level, it is challenging to make more concrete suggestions. However, one can always get a tutor – sometimes a different perspective or a different teaching style could be the difference between struggling and understanding. You already have an important key ingredient – you WANT to be an engineer! That is wonderful, keep at it, because we need you to become an engineer. You say you have been good at math before, this leads me to believe that you are good at math now.

    Every engineering discipline is different and even within those different types of engineering, there are further differences. I work in a very mathematical area within electrical and computer engineering, but some of my computer engineering colleagues are more applied and do less theoretical work. I personally need to remember calculus because it is important for computing key functions within probability theory and we use random variables to describe a lot of physical phenomena (the distortion introduced in wireless communication channels, how one models long streams of data, etc.).

    Also recognize that there are different kinds of mathematics. Just today, I had a conversation with colleagues about how many computer science undergraduates are adept at discrete math, but struggle with topics related to calculus (like my probability theory example above). Electrical engineers might use more continuous math. However, we are all still engineers. I do very little with differential equations; in contrast, some of my colleagues in chemical engineering are very adept at solving all manner of differential equations.

    If you are in middle school or high school, I think it might be too early for someone to tell you what you can and cannot be. It is important to have the background material so that you have necessary prerequisites for key courses for your early college days, but you finding the right mathematics (and right engineering) for you might take more time.

    I hope you will keep at it, and seek others to help you learn. Don't be afraid to make mistakes, this is how we learn.

    Good luck!

  • Priscilla Bennett , Spire / Laclede Gas Company
    Answered Monday, April 8, 2019 at 10:25 AM

    The opinion of one person does not/should not define us. Please do not take this person’s teaching style or opinion as a reflection of what you are capable of accomplishing. Study groups, online learning, a tutor, library resources, a classmate, someone at church, an older sibling, a college student who has completed this course or even corporate tutoring services... find someone who can help you understand more of the material and you’ll be surprised how one day the light bulb will turn on and you’ll laugh at how difficult it seemed before and suddenly it starts to make sense. Sometimes we just need to break down the material into bite-size pieces so we start to learn the process of solving problems. This is part of the whole engineering process – breaking down the big picture into bite-size pieces to solve the issue.

    Personal experience was with a Civil Engineering course (I am an Industrial Engineer) and I failed the course (my one and only “F” in college). I struggled, wondered and even contemplated changing my major. The instructor told me the exact same thing “maybe engineering is not for you” and I believed him! Thankfully I had a friend in a different instructor’s class breezing through and actually enjoying the course material. I decided to hang in there and re-take the class and chose the other instructor and made a “B” without much trouble – even though I stepped into the class doubting my own ability at that time. Sometimes we learn differently and the same goes with an instructor. Sometimes a person has a style of teaching that we just don’t “get” but that does not mean we are not smart or “good enough” to learn the material.

    Don’t quit. If you have a passion and interest in engineering, do not cheat yourself out of a career based on one person’s opinion. If you struggle with math, it’s okay to get help but it does not mean you can’t learn it or that engineering is not for you. Hang in there and know I’m rooting for you and your success!

  • Alicia Bailey , Sain Associates
    Answered Monday, April 8, 2019 at 10:23 AM

    Doing poorly in one math class should not determine your entire future nor should it deter you from considering engineering. It could be an isolated issue that is causing you difficulty. My advice would be to find a tutor or a friend who is understanding the material and get a little help. Having the material explained differently may enhance your understanding. I can look back on myself to say there were certain aspects of math that were not as easy to me as others. For instance, I excelled in algebra but had a harder time with geometry. In college, I had no issues with Calculus 1, 2, and 4, but Calculus 3 and 5 were struggles. I can’t really say why certain classes were harder, but I have a very distinct memory of studying a lot more in those classes and the information from those classes has stuck with me a lot longer than the classes that came more easily.

    Math is a major core in engineering. However, I have known many great engineers who were not “A” students in math. Don’t get discouraged. Focus on getting through your difficult class and learn from it. Engineering is all about problem solving. You are having a “problem,” figure out how to improve or fix it. You may be surprised that in the long run, this difficult class may make you a better mathematician (and engineer) if you have to change the way you are tackling the information and working harder to understand the material.

  • Khadijah Latiff , Chicago Transit Partners
    Answered Monday, April 8, 2019 at 10:18 AM

    Your teacher is not right to give you that advice. Math is important for engineering, but math isn't fixed. There's often more than one way to solve a math problem, and usually it depends on how you frame the question. Some ways are shorter, some ways are longer, some ways are easier to visualize, and other ways are more/less intuitive depending on how your brain works (some people are more verbal and others more visual). To help you understand, you can search "Japanese multiplication method" on the internet to see how other people use visual diagrams to solve for common multiplication. Here's an explanation. When I was in school, we used to stack numbers on top of each other in a column to do multiplications. Both methods will get you the same answer, and there can be many more ways how people do multiplication. If your teacher is teaching it one way, the important thing is that you try that method first. Try and work on problems and homework with other people because they might see something you are not. It helps to do a lot of practice. There are also online resources like Khan Academy where you can practice and watch tutorials. Math requires creativity so working with others in groups is better than working alone. Good luck.

  • Theresa Brunasso , D&S Microwave, Inc.
    Answered Monday, April 8, 2019 at 10:17 AM

    I’m glad that you wrote in to us. I don’t think your teacher should have told you “maybe engineering isn’t for you!” I think your teacher should have said, “you will need to work a bit more at math.” Math isn’t easy. I’ve been a practicing engineer for over 30 years, and I wish my math skills were stronger – and I successfully designed hardware that allowed Curiosity to land on Mars! Math is a skill like so many other skills. You have to practice to become good at it. If you play a musical instrument, you know that you need to practice to get better. If you play a sport, you know that you have to practice to get better. Math is exactly the same! If you practice, I promise that you will get better. Don’t just do the problems that the teacher assigns. Do as many problems in the book that you can. You’ll discover that your problem solving skills will improve, and so will your confidence. Go forth and practice! When you’re accepted to an engineering program in college, write back and let me know. You can do this!

  • Patricia Eng , Self Employed: Speaker and Author
    Answered Monday, April 8, 2019 at 10:16 AM

    When a teacher tells you that a certain career is not for you, that is just wrong. Einstein was told that he could never be a physicist when he was in school and look what he accomplished! Do not despair. I had a math teacher in college that I just could not understand. It was Greek to me and I was very good at math. I wound up dropping the class and taking it again the following semester from another teacher who made sense to me. I did very well and became an engineer. Math is important for engineering, but a lot of it is done by computer once you get into the workplace. See if there is another teacher who teaches this class if you can. If not, see your school counselor to see if there are resources that you can use to help you deal with this class. But don't give up on your goal of being an engineer. It is a very good career and can lead to many opportunities.

  • Monique Frize , Carleton University and University of Ottawa
    Answered Monday, April 8, 2019 at 10:15 AM

    I have seen this before, a student who does well and then not well with a new teacher. This tells me he is not a good teacher and may be biased on the appropriateness of engineering for women. My advice: Find someone who is doing well in the class and try to have this person tutor you for awhile until things become clear for you. That student may explain things better than the teacher.

    About math and engineering: There are some disciplines with a lot of math like electrical engineering and engineering physics. However, mechanical, civil, geological, mining, and several other engineering disciplines use much less math. Biomedical engineering, my own field, can be approached from an electrical or mechanical background.

    Finally, do not listen to negative comments from the teacher. Find positive persons to provide information and advice for your future education choices.

    Good luck!

  • Answered Monday, April 8, 2019 at 10:14 AM

    Everyone learns in different ways. This particular teacher may not be using a teaching technique that works for you. Seek out other teachers and online support such as Khan Academy for extra help in this subject. Another suggestion is to read the textbook (self-teach) and do all the problems provided (tactical learning). Mathematics and the ability to think logically go hand in hand are very important for engineering, but don’t let your teacher’s words discourage you. Stay the course and show him how you can re-engineer yourself.

  • Angela Foss , Southern New Hampshire University
    Answered Monday, April 8, 2019 at 10:12 AM

    Math is a skill that, like others, needs and takes practice. I used to work with student athletes and would remind them about the time they invested in practicing their sport. It didn’t all come to them easily when they first began. That is often the same with math. I share this to hopefully encourage you to not to give up or be discouraged.

    Math is a foundational skill for engineering and it has different applications and levels depending on the specific discipline. Don’t give up on wanting to be an engineer because you are struggling with math. We all think differently and have different learning styles. Many math problems can be approached in a variety of ways and yet we traditionally only teach them with one viewpoint. I would encourage you to seek out a peer or tutor to explore other ways to think about the math topics she is learning. Explore new ways of understanding the “why” of a problem. This is one way to unlock your understanding. And keep practicing!!

    I hope this helps, and have faith in your own abilities to get better.

  • Marnie Smith , LivaNova
    Answered Monday, April 8, 2019 at 10:10 AM

    My heart aches for you that your teacher isn't being supportive. Math is important for engineering but just because you are struggling with math this year does NOT mean you are bad at math! When I was in high school, I thought I was bad at math too because I struggled with geometry. Guess what… I'm not bad at all math, I'm just not strong in that specific subject. However, it took well into college for me to realize that I'm good at math because that experience stuck with me for so long.

    I also had a teacher I respected tell me that I wouldn't end up an engineer, I'd just end up a math teacher like him. Let me tell you, that made me mad then and still makes me mad now and I graduated from high school 20 years ago! How can we break the paradigm of girls thinking they are bad at math with figures of authority stating otherwise? You don't have to take every piece of advice someone throws at you if you don't believe it. So you are allowed to ignore that bad advice from your teacher.

    It could be just the subject, it could be the teaching style, and/or could be that you might just need more help in this class. If you have been doing well in math until this year, it is rational to expect that these, or a combination thereof, could be the problem. This is also a great time to realize that you own your education and career, so what are some steps you can take to advocate for yourself? You have a problem at hand, engineers are inherent problem solvers so let’s figure this out! Here are some ideas:

    • Leverage the internet, Google, YouTube, etc. This day and age there is a wealth of information available at your fingertips! You might be able to find another lesson on a topic you are struggling with that could help you connect with the material better.
    • Ask your peers for help. Ask one of the students in your class who is doing well with the class to see if they would be willing to help you by doing homework together.
    • Seek out a tutor. Ask your teacher for a recommended tutor. For example, in high school I remember being a tutor as part of National Honors Society. Or, if you can afford it, work with your parents to see if you could hire a math tutor.
    • Ask your teacher if you could come in early or stay after school for more help. This is only if you feel comfortable working with your current teacher.
    • See if you could go to another math teacher for more help. Did you have a previous teacher that you really clicked with? Or is another teacher teaching the same subject? Would they be willing to work with you on this?

    These things may feel uncomfortable, and I completely understand. But bear in mind, asking for help is a skill that is useful in your future career as well. Also, please remember this: you are not bad. Struggling in a subject does not make you a bad person or a bad student. And struggling with a certain part of the wide umbrella of math does not make you bad at math. You can do this and you can still be an engineer if you are willing to work hard. Good luck!

  • Rebecca Goldberg , Cameron Engineering & Associates, LLP
    Answered Monday, April 8, 2019 at 9:58 AM

    I’m going to guess that your curriculum is “Common Core” math. There are plenty of engineers, myself included, who got nearly perfect math SAT scores, and are very good at math – but we do not understand or even like the way Common Core math is taught. Do not let this age-inappropriate curriculum – which tends to stress method, over correctness and efficiency – discourage you, since you have always been good at math. If you’re good with numbers, logic, and thinking things through, that’s what counts.

    I think what would help you would be to look on YouTube for tutorial videos. You didn’t say which math class you’re having a problem with, so I’ll use algebra as an example. Search for “Algebra tutorial” or “algebra lesson” on YouTube and you’ll see dozens of videos. I’d start with the videos with higher view counts. Hopefully you find a presenter who can present the material in a clearer way for you than your teacher can.

    As to what math you would need to know as an engineer, engineering degrees require calculus and usually probability-statistics as well. Challenging, but doable if you’re good at math. Different engineering disciplines utilize math differently. I’m a civil-transportation engineer, and most of the math I use is based on geometry and algebra, like you learn in high school. I don’t personally use the collegiate level calculus much; the probability class I took has come in handy a few times.

    As an aside, never let one person tell you what you’re good at or not good at, especially if you know better. But that’s for another thread. Good luck!

  • Jacqueline Wilmot , National Fire Protection Association
    Answered Monday, April 8, 2019 at 9:57 AM

    I was never in any AP classes for Math or Science. In fact, I struggled with both subjects, which most students find themselves feeling disengaged with the material. I liked the challenge, but that certainly did not mean it came easy to me or I was good at it. I had to stay for extra help, and receive help from multiple resources until I found someone that made the material “click” for me. Stick with it and communicate with your teacher that you are interested in the subject, having a difficult time comprehending whatever the specific subject might be and ask for methods of how you can improve. Some teachers offer extra hours, or allow you to meet with other available faculty. Khan Academy ( helped simplify many of the subjects I tried to understand and it’s free! Math and Science are definitely important to understand in order to become an engineer but you will need to find what works best for your learning abilities and they might differ from subject to subject. Last but certainly not least, DO NOT let a teacher persuade you into thinking engineering might not be for you because of your current struggles.

  • Melanie Cragnolin , Cragnolin Engineering and Design Associates DPC
    Answered Monday, April 8, 2019 at 9:55 AM

    I’m sorry you’re having trouble with your teacher and that he made such a discouraging comment.

    If you’re in high school, there are numerous tutorial books such as “calculus made easy” and similar. Make sure you ask for extra help. If you’re in college, you can ask your TA for extra help after class.

    I had difficulty with differential equations and I stayed for extra help with my TA as well as discovered books that made the approach much easier than what the professor was presenting. Yes, I used “Differential Equations for Dummies” and gleefully passed as exam with a 100%.

    If math has not been a problem for you before, it may just be the instructor’s approach or it may be that the math subjects will become more and more complex with regard to engineering. However, what I’ve learned is if your algebra is solid then the rest just requires a little more focus, time, and patience. Never allow anyone to dissuade you from engineering unless you have made that decision for yourself.

  • Maria Marenco , Robert Bosch
    Answered Monday, April 8, 2019 at 9:53 AM

    Dear student,

    I think (hope) that your teacher is trying to help you, and not just trying to unfairly discourage you. I can’t judge their knowledge or skills to teach, however, I am sure that there are no teachers that match with 100% of their students. Maybe this is one case, where the combination of your teacher and your character just doesn’t match. Have you heard this same statement from other teachers in the past? Maybe you have the possibility to find a mentor, or some expert in the field, that can support or reject your teacher’s theory?

    Independently of what he says, I don’t think this kind of discouraging advice should affect your decision. You can get an objective overview of what engineering involves, and if you like it, I think you should go for it. If you find your passion in it, it will help you overcome any obstacles in the way. Many people decide their career just based on the things they are good at. This may be the easier path on the short run, but sooner or later they get confronted with more difficult tasks. And for those moments, it is essential to have their own passion to push you. Otherwise, they have to step out because it is “too much."

    So, my advice is for you to get out and check the facts. Nothing better than math to be objective and find unbiased information. Talk to possible advisors, take tests, check out material for the first years of the study. Talk to fresh students, and ask them what was the most difficult thing, and how they overcome it. That will help you choose a career that suits you, independent on your teacher’s opinion.

  • Kim Wheeler , The Walt Disney Company
    Answered Monday, April 8, 2019 at 9:48 AM

    Don’t let this discourage you from majoring in engineering! Just because you aren’t doing well in his class doesn’t mean you aren’t good at math. It could be his teaching style or how you are learning the information. I struggled immensely with Calculus in high school, and then I re-took it my Freshman year of college and aced it!

    Math is just one part of engineering, and frankly the majority of engineering math done in practice is algebra, at least in my 6 years of professional experience.

  • Terita Norton , The Aerospace Corporation
    Answered Monday, April 8, 2019 at 9:44 AM

    Don’t get discouraged. While math is important to engineering, it should not be feared. I was an honor student in high school but struggled initially with one of my first college math courses because I could not understand the professor. I had to seek help from my mentor, who was a middle math teacher at the time, to review the material one on one. I worked hard and ultimately received a B in the course. Engineering requires hard work and dedication but can be achieved. I would recommend that you seek a tutor or a study group to help you with your math assignments. Also consider getting an extra math reference book or seeking online math instructional videos to supplement what your teacher is providing.

  • Vanessa Li , Novelis
    Answered Monday, April 8, 2019 at 9:43 AM

    My view is not to believe 100% of what the teacher says – teachers can be wrong, too. When I was in 3rd grade, my teacher told my mom that I had learning disability. I was transferred to a different class and it was one of the worst days of my life. To make a long story short, I now have a master’s degree and a good career. When I was 16, my biology teacher was very mean to me and I received a bad grade in her class without understanding why. When I switched to a different school, I received an A in honors biology. The fact that you do not do well in one out of the many subjects does not mean you will not be successful later in your life. Being good at math certainly helps in your engineering coursework but depends on your career path. Math may not be the key to your success – there are so many different types of engineering and engineering jobs! Do not let the teacher's comment discourage you. When I was told by my teacher that boys usually do better in science and math than girls, I was determined to disprove it. A good teacher does not discourage a student's learning interest whether the student does well in the class or not.

  • Folake Akintayo , University of Ibadan, Ibadan, NIGERIA
    Answered Monday, April 8, 2019 at 9:42 AM

    Mathematics is an interesting subject. It is easy to understand if you have good teachers to put you through in the foundational class. It is also an interactive subject. Loving your instructors is important to having an excellent performance as this will propel you to work hard at overcoming the challenges inherent in the subject. You can make it, don't give up!

  • Jill S. Tietjen , Technically Speaking, Inc.
    Answered Monday, April 8, 2019 at 9:39 AM

    My first response to this question is unprintable – since I can't believe we are still dealing with this issue in 2019.

    You are smart and you are capable. Your math teacher is the problem. Have you asked your parents to advocate for you? If not, please do so – and find out if you can switch teachers/classes (this applies to math classes – certainly high school, possibly middle school as well). Do not believe a teacher that tells you that math isn't for you or you aren't good at math.

    Do you think that you really are not understanding the material? This can particularly be a problem with geometry. GET A TUTOR! I had problems in college with Statics – failed the first test of what is supposed to be the easiest class. I immediately got a tutor – and the material became clear – the professor even hired me as his research assistant.

  • Christine Schmidt , University of Florida
    Answered Monday, April 8, 2019 at 9:38 AM

    Math is very important for engineering. My own daughter was great in math but started struggling with one particular teacher. We sought out tutoring (Mathnasium in particular), and this has been hugely beneficial to her and she is now top in her class. If you have the ability to seek out separate tutoring, I encourage this. Also, free online resources such as Khan Academy are very helpful and can augment your course materials. Good luck and stick with it. Don’t let this one experience discourage you from your engineering goal!

  • Sayari Ghosh , Concur
    Answered Monday, April 8, 2019 at 9:36 AM

    1. Math is very important in engineering. It is something you'd think of as a base subject. I don't know what type of engineering you are looking for, but math is important. Even in software engineering when you study data structures and algorithms a good foundation in math is very very helpful.

    2. Don't let one teacher and his specific teaching skills mark you as "bad at math" or "engineering is not for me.” I got some really horrible scores in math in middle school and high school, but those few test scores mean nothing about my capacity to solve mathematical problems. Don't let test scores define your abilities. I admit I have done that myself, but in the long run a few tests don't matter.

    3. I do not know which grade you are in and what kind of materials you are having trouble with. But let me tell you, I was really good at arithmetic and geometry, but really bad in algebra. You can still be good at math but still dislike some branches of it. If you need any help please feel free to reach out to me through the site. I will be happy to help.

    4. Most people feel they are "bad at " because the teachers use the same way of teaching for the entire class, even though each of the students are unique. We are taught wrong, that's why we are afraid of the subject. Please don't let this define you. You are capable of attaining your dreams.

  • Susan Su , US Patent and Trademark Office
    Answered Monday, April 8, 2019 at 9:34 AM

    Math is indeed a big part of the engineering curriculum, especially during the first two years of college, thus being good at math does make a huge difference in how easily you can get through college. Since there are many disciplines of engineering, the 3rd and 4th years of an engineering curriculum may allow you to move away from the branch of math that you have trouble with. I struggled with linear algebra (pre-calculus and finite elements used linear algebra concepts heavily) but excelled in calculus (including multivariable calculus, mechanics, heat transfer, etc.), so I was still able to graduate from mechanical engineering with honors. So what I want to say is that first, your teacher may indeed be the main reason why you're not learning well; second, even if you're somehow not good in certain areas of math, you can still do well in engineering. Give yourself a chance to try out engineering and definitely reach out to classmates for help when you are struggling.