It’s Okay to Not Understand Algebra

Many students don’t understand algebra concepts the first time they see them, and that is completely okay, even to be expected. It’s okay to start off just memorizing the steps for working problems in algebra, even if students don’t know what they are doing and don’t grasp the bigger picture. The reason it’s okay is because oftentimes something learned in a math class doesn’t become relevant until we see it in context in the following math class. A student can really get bogged down trying to understand (or being forced to try to understand) a concept that might just be a bit out of reach at that point in the student’s math development.

That’s why it’s okay to just say “for now, memorize the steps and just learn to work the problem.” Many times, students will have “ah-ha” moments in algebra 2 about concepts they learned in algebra 1. They didn’t understand the concept in algebra 1, but then seeing it in a greater context in algebra 2 causes them to say “ohhhh, I get why we did it that way.” So, I encourage parents and teachers to not get too caught up with trying to make sure a student thoroughly understands each concept.

Another reason it is okay for students to just memorize the steps of concepts is because of the way the brain works. Our brains love to connect newly learned skills or concepts to things it already knows. If a student is learning a new abstract math concept (like many algebra topics), the brain might have a hard time trying to make sense of it. If a student is struggling with a concept, just have them memorize the steps and keep moving along. Then, when the student sees the concept again, there is a little hook in the brain from the first time the concept was introduced, and the student stands a much better chance at understanding it. Sometimes it takes a third or a fourth time seeing a concept for it to stick (which is the beauty of constant review). But stick it will, which is why it’s important to not get too consumed with having a student thoroughly understand a concept the first time they see it.

Students need to know that it is common to struggle with understanding algebra concepts. This means they are normal. If a student runs across a concept they are not getting in algebra, a healthy mindset would be for them to just shrug their shoulders and say “Well, I don’t really get this, but I’ll just memorize the steps for getting the answer, and I’m sure I’ll understand it better the next time I see it.” This helps students not feel “dumb” in math (which NO student should ever have to feel), and it helps bring about some self-confidence that will aid the student in learning math.


Happy Teaching!


P.S. Need help navigating the world of high school math? Download my free math planning guide here. Or check out my blog for other tips and advice I’ve learned over the past two decades of teaching math.


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