Okay, so imagine I’m a student who is having a tough time in math. Because I’m having a tough time with the content, doing the homework is a struggle, and that struggle is uncomfortable. Homework is bad enough as it is, but what I’m experiencing is much worse: homework where I don’t know what I’m doing. Hence, I often choose to not do the homework.
So because engaging with math is uncomfortable, I avoid it. Because I’m not practicing, I fall further behind. I never completely understand any of the topics being taught in class, so I’m unprepared for whatever comes next, which means that the next topic will be even more uncomfortable, so I’ll be even more inclined to avoid it.
This only gets worse as time goes on. In class, I feel less and less inclined to engage with what’s being taught, less and less inclined to take notes and ask questions. At home, I conveniently “forget” to do my homework. On tests, I feel like I’m drowning. In other words, I’m experiencing the downward spiral of math avoidance:
This downward spiral leads me to believe that I’m “bad” at math. But because I can’t see this feedback loop – because I don’t understand the pattern – I think that I’m the problem. I think there’s something wrong with me, that I’m “not a math person,” or that I’m simply not smart enough to learn the math.
And because each new math topic is more uncomfortable than the last, I start to really dislike math. I decide that math just isn’t my thing. I don’t recognize that I just don’t like things that I have a hard time with. It’s a natural human tendency to prefer doing things we do well and avoid things that don’t feel good. If I always get praised for the way I sing, I’ll keep on singing. If I crash my bike and get hurt every time I go for a ride, I will quickly decide that I don’t like riding bikes.
This downward spiral of math discomfort and math avoidance sets me up to have fixed-minded beliefs about my relationship with math that actually have nothing to do with my own abilities and everything to do with this feedback loop.
The good news is that feedback loops can be reversed. If I take notes in class, ask questions, learn techniques, use resources to figure things out, and practice math on a regular basis, I’ll start doing better. This will feel good, making me less inclined to avoid math. As I continue engaging with math, I will find more and more success, and math will be more and more enjoyable.
Thus, the happy opposite of the downward spiral is the following feedback loop:
Reversing course may be simple, but it’s not easy. If I’ve been in the downward spiral for a long time, the behavior pattern will have some serious momentum behind it. It’s always better to intervene early. The further I fall behind, the harder it is to catch up.
The longer I’ve been in the downward spiral, the more toxic my relationship is with math. Once I’m really deep in the pit, I won’t be able to see the light of day, and I’ll lose hope. If I’ve fallen to that depth, I’ll need a great deal of help climbing back out.
I will need a steady stream of growth-mindset reframes from coaches, parents, tutors, and teachers. Because I don’t believe in myself, I will need to hear these people repeatedly express a certainty that I am capable of figuring the math out and capable of getting caught up. But this must be realistic optimism, backed up by concrete support and my own hard work. I might simply need to be reassured that I can, in fact, reverse course and build positive momentum.
I will need content tutoring to support me as I struggle with math concepts. I will need academic coaching to learn techniques to manage cognitive load and form stronger memories, such as making written product and spaced repetition.
I will need to steadily engage with math by paying attention in school, completing my homework, and doing extra practice beyond the homework. This will be very uncomfortable at first, so I might need procrastination coaching to help me get started. I might need help overcoming perfectionism.
As I gain knowledge and skills, my self-efficacy (my true confidence) around math will grow. As a result, my tendency to avoid math will be replaced with a desire to engage it.
Seeing Where You Are
Most students who are caught in the downward spiral of math avoidance are unaware of it, and the few who are aware usually can’t see a way out. Author and YouTube educator John Green said in his TED Talk that “You very rarely go to a place that isn’t on your personal map.” So a student needs to at least know that there’s an alternative if he’s to have any hope of going there.
Students who live in the downward spiral are like hikers stumbling around in the fog without a map and compass. They’re lost, and they don’t know how to get unlost. Our job isn’t just to show them how to do the math, which would be like showing them how to hike, our job is to help them see the territory and navigate it deliberately. Our job is to clear the fog, so they can choose the right direction. We cannot make them walk the path, but we can provide them with the necessary tools and present them with a choice.
Sometimes I have a conversation with a student that goes like this:
Student: “I’m really bad at math.”
Chris: “Oh. Let me ask you something. Aside from the homework they give you, how often do you practice math?”
Student (brow furrowed): “Um, never.”
Chris (happy tone): “Okay, that makes sense. I never practice basketball, so I’m really bad at basketball.”
Student: “So you’re saying I should practice.”
Chris: “Nope. I’m saying you could. You don’t have to, and I won’t be upset if you choose not to, but you could.”
Then we might discuss something they are “good” at, like a sport, a musical instrument, or a video game. And then I map out the downward spiral, so they can see that the issue is structural rather than personal. This pairs well with a discussion of how math is an upside-down pyramid and the mastery path, which are two more structural reasons students struggle with math.
I’ll explain that there is no quick fix, but there is a way forward, and that I would love to support the process if they’re interested.
This applies to more than just math. The downward spiral of discomfort and avoidance shows up in reading, writing, science, the study of foreign languages, and even school as a whole. It’s important that we recognize it and respond to it as soon as possible.
Chris Loper has been an academic coach for Northwest Educational Services since 2014.
Chris also offers habit coaching, helping busy adults with habit formation and productivity.
In 2021, he published a humorous memoir titled Wood Floats and Other Brilliant Observations, a book that blends crazy stories with practical life lessons.
He lives in Issaquah, WA, where he is the owner of South Cove Tutoring.