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Top 4 Reasons Adults Shouldn’t Fear Algebra

math.jpgI cannot begin to count the number of intelligent adults I have met who are terrified of going to college because of math. The Grim Reaper of all classes seems to be College Algebra, a requirement for many degrees, and the mortal terror of many students. Apparently, a lot of people learned to hate and fear math when they were younger and are now convinced they cannot handle it.  

In my work as an academic tutor, I have never met a student who couldn’t pass College Algebra. I firmly believe almost anyone capable of passing a college entrance exam can pass College Algebra with the right training and prerequisite work. So why are so many people afraid?

When a friend of mine was younger, he was attacked by a housecat. I’m not kidding – straight out attacked! The cat went ballistic, scratched his cheek, and bit his hand. From that moment forward, he lived in fear of cats. Behind every pair of feline eyes he saw a lurking devil, waiting to pounce. I tried explaining to him that not all cats were crazy, but he refused to listen. Cats were scary. End of story.

In many ways, it’s the same with algebra. People have bad experiences with higher math as children and never stop to consider their experiences may have resulted from a particular set of circumstances unique to a period of time in their lives. Try again with a new set of circumstances (or a new cat, if you will), and the outcome could be totally different.

Based on my experiences as a tutor, parent, and former struggling student, here are the top 4 reasons why you can expect your experience with math to be better now that you are an adult.  

Reason 1: Your reasoning skills are more developed now

Algebra requires higher reasoning skills, such as the ability to think abstractly. Because these skills increase with age, your first experiences with algebra may have occurred before you were ready. Your mature mind may now be more capable.

One of my pupils (we’ll call him Bob)  remembers sitting in a math class in high school, staring at the blackboard as his teacher droned on endlessly about x and y and other variables.  “A variable is a letter that represents a number,” the teacher said.


Even though Bob had been using symbols to represent real-world things since he was a toddler (remember, language is symbolic), this idea of a letter representing a number made absolutely no sense to him. He could not comprehend the abstract machinery of higher math, so he gave up on understanding and lived in fear of each homework assignment.

Several years later, while taking Intermediate Algebra in college, Bob was once again introduced to the concept of variables. And this time, a light bulb went on in his head. He suddenly understood! According to Bob, the only things different about him the second time around were his age and maturity.

Reason 2: You are no longer forced to accept a mediocre teacher

When you were in high school, your choice of algebra teachers may have been limited. I personally had two choices: The teacher everyone hated, or the other guy. I chose the other guy.

As an adult, you have more options. If you live in a big city, you may have access to state universities, private colleges, and affordable community colleges. Find a friend, relative or associate who attends each of the schools in your price range and solicit opinions on resident algebra teachers.  Try to find a teacher with a reputation for explaining concepts clearly, a patient and generous teacher willing to spend extra time with struggling students.  These teachers do exist! If you find one, make sure you sign up for her class before it fills up.  

I am not suggesting to pick your school based solely on the reputation of an algebra teacher.  But if fear of algebra is preventing you from enrolling in a particular college, investigate transfer options.  

Reason 3: You no longer need to rely on your family for tutoring

When I was younger, I sometimes asked my father for help with my lessons. My father was a smart guy, but had no idea how to counsel a confused young student. He often became frustrated and started yelling, and I didn’t make matters easier when I became defensive and pouty. These study-sessions became so unpleasant, I eventually stopped asking for help.

Even the best parents may struggle as tutors simply because they do not know how to explain things in a way children understand.

Now that you are an adult, you have more options. Many schools have free math labs or mentored study areas. These are excellent resources! Some very smart people hang out there! Find yourself a mentor in the lab and ask him questions. That’s what he’s there for. A private tutor, if you can afford it, is another option.

Reason 4: This time, you’re working for yourself

Presumably, you are thinking about braving your greatest fear, the dreaded demon of College Algebra, because you are trying to achieve something for yourself. Perhaps it’s a degree. Or maybe it’s a greater understanding of mathematics. Whatever it is, you are no longer working for your parents.  You’re doing this for you, as an expression of your own heart’s desire. If you can’t find the courage to pursue your own dreams, how will you ever find the courage to pursue anything?

If College Algebra is standing between you and your goals, knock down the wall, friend.  Go get what you want.

I hope this article inspires you to overcome your fear. If it doesn’t, hopefully my parting questions will give you pause:  

What’s the worst that could happen if you fail?  You lose time, which will pass anyway.  And maybe you lose the cost of tuition. 

But what’s the best that can happen if you succeed?  You could prove to yourself that you are capable — a benefit worth the risk, if you ask me.  And let’s not forget the degree, career, and life you’ve been dreaming about.  All of that is within your reach.

Go on.  Give it a try.  I believe you can do it. 


Categories: Study Smarter