By Sean Alexander

Building Confidence in Mathematics

Confidence in MathematicsMathematics has a massive effect on student confidence.  Confidence is the most important trait for success in mathematics.   Conversely, performance in mathematics has a huge effect on confidence.  Therefore mathematics provides a wonderful opportunity to build confidence.

It doesn’t take much to make or break your confidence when it comes to math.  All it takes is one incident of feeling dumb about a math problem for a student to decide math is not their thing.  We’ve seen it over and over again, a student comes to us that “hates math” or “sucks at math” looking for help in their math class.

Every one of these students had an incident around the 4th to 7th grade in which they decided to be bad at math.  Usually, it’s a mean teacher that embarrassed them in front of the class.

Other traumatic events include

  • missing out on a year of school
  • being put in the advanced class and competing with smart friends

It’s the traumatic event that caused the student to decide to be bad at math.  What is the psychology behind this decision?  It’s much safer to have been born “not good at math” than it is to try at it and fail.  Therefore the student takes comfort in “not being a math person”, and proceeds to check out of any further math conversation.

This is what we call the narrative: the story you tell yourself about you and math.  The longer a negative narrative is allowed to run, the truer it becomes.  After multiple years of a negative math narrative, guess what happens to your confidence?  It drops.  Not just in math but in all areas of life.

You start to feel un-smart.  You feel you can’t figure out problems by yourself.  You start to develop math anxiety.  I’m not just talking about math problems, I’m talking about life problems too!  Have you ever met an adult that will ask for help the second a problem gets challenging, without directly engaging the problem themselves?  This could be something like logging in to a website or fixing the kitchen sink.

This is a remnant of lacking confidence, they don’t think they can solve the problem themselves.  The crazy thing is THERE IS NO CORRELATION TO MATHEMATICAL ABILITY!  Students that struggle in math are victims of their own psychology, not genetics!  Are there math genius's out there?  Sure, but no one is incapable of learning mathematics.

There is light at the end of this tunnel.  If a lack of confidence in math is psychological in nature, there must be a solution!  And here’s the good news: As easy as it is to crush a student's confidence in math, it’s that easy to turn it all around.  All it takes is one “ah-ha” moment for a student to start seeing themselves differently.

What a great math tutor or physics tutor can do is deliver that “ah-ha” moment and then build upon it.  Once the student realizes they “get it”, we’ve entered a different universe of learning.  The student is engaged and enjoys finding the right answer.  The student is ready to learn.

Our job is to re-shape the narrative into something positive and self-sustaining.  This will build the student's confidence not only in mathematics but in their ability to solve life’s challenges.    We consider confidence to be the number one, most important skill we teach.


  • Sean Alexander

    COMMAND PILOT, OWNER Sean has been a professional educator for 15 years and has taught math, physics, and astronomy at all levels.  His experience ranges from working at a high school for severe learning differences to teaching advanced physics at Stanford.  After completing his graduate work in theoretical physics Sean founded Alexander Tutoring, with the mission of revealing the deep connections between math and nature to as many students as possible. 

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