Can some people just not learn calculus?

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Discus: College Confidential Café: 2004 Archive: Can some people just not learn calculus?
By Emswim (Emswim) on Monday, September 13, 2004 - 11:46 pm: Edit

I am so frustrated in calc right now. Until this year I was really good in math, (I'm even a year ahead, taking AP Calc as a junior) I just checked my grade and I barely have a C. I don't know what to do. I will probably lose my 4.0 now. It's not like I've been slacking off. I do all the practice problems and more, stay for extra help, and do all the extra credit available. But I failed our first quiz and first test. I've never failed anything in my life before. Is there any chance that I am just not able to learn calculus? I am sick of spending hours every night (literally) just to fail.

By Mom101 (Mom101) on Monday, September 13, 2004 - 11:49 pm: Edit

Yes, I can't remember the name but there is a math equivilent of dyslexia.

By Emswim (Emswim) on Monday, September 13, 2004 - 11:53 pm: Edit

Are you being serious? I can do everything in precalc, I just have trouble with derivatives.

By Virginia2004 (Virginia2004) on Monday, September 13, 2004 - 11:56 pm: Edit

I think i might have the math dyslexia. Im just horrible at math and i dont mean that i dont understand a calculus problem, I wish i could understand calculus, i have trouble with algebra 2, its that bad, math is just so hard for me. But i love english and reading and writing.

By Mom101 (Mom101) on Tuesday, September 14, 2004 - 12:09 am: Edit

I'm totally serious, but it's probably not you if your issue is isolated. Sounds like you just need a good tutor to help you see derivatives in a different way than you're teacher is teaching.

By Aim78 (Aim78) on Tuesday, September 14, 2004 - 12:49 am: Edit

No, no tutor. Princeton Review, my friend. Any student in Calc HAS to get that book.

Derivatives are pretty damn simple.
Derivative of 3x^4 is...

Multiply the exponent by the constant, subtract one from the exponent.

4x^4 -> 16x^3
dy/dx of 5y^3 -> 15y(dy/dx) (chain rule, since you're derivating in terms of x, y is foreign and you have to multiply by the derivative of that as well).

Just get PR.

By Thermodude (Thermodude) on Tuesday, September 14, 2004 - 01:06 am: Edit

True, my personal experience is that derivatives and integrals really are pretty simple once you get the hang of it. Many times if you feel that something is hard and difficult, it will become hard and difficult. Likewise, if you approach something with confidence and believe in your ability, it will become much easier. Given the fact that you had no trouble with pre-calc, I'll bet you can tackle this calculus thing. Afterall, school only started a month ago. Like AIM78 said, get the Princeton Review prep book....that book is the best. It basically helped me self-study BC calc and get a 5. BTW, if you need help with any math problems, many of us on CC will be willing to help you, as there are many math lovers (including myself) here.

Also, just curious, how far into derivatives have you studied? Have you guys gone past the chain rule stuff yet?

By Ndbisme5 (Ndbisme5) on Tuesday, September 14, 2004 - 01:12 am: Edit

Testing, 1, 2, 3.

By Onnihs (Onnihs) on Tuesday, September 14, 2004 - 02:01 am: Edit

Virginia, i'm exactly like you. I'm curious to learn more about that math dyslexia, for I have a serious problem with rules and formulas.

which is why i majored in english

By Anglophile (Anglophile) on Tuesday, September 14, 2004 - 02:20 am: Edit

I'm an english major too! I always thought part of my brain was missing-- maybe being dropped when I was a baby dented the math part of the brain, so the english side overcompensated. Just my personal theory ;) I barely survived math classes, but now I never have to take another one again!!!

By Mom101 (Mom101) on Tuesday, September 14, 2004 - 02:31 am: Edit

OK, called my prof who told me about this. It's called dyscalculia and a web site for info is

By Emswim (Emswim) on Tuesday, September 14, 2004 - 07:55 am: Edit

I know the shortcut, but we have to be able to do it the long way. I get confused with all the delta-x's. I always make some mistake cancelling them out.

By Onnihs (Onnihs) on Tuesday, September 14, 2004 - 04:21 pm: Edit

lol mom101, that's funny.

i think i suffer from some of the symtpoms of DYSCALCULIA, but some areas i have no problems with, such as finances and keeping track of time. however, i have no sense of direction, and have poor name/face association. HAHA!

By Vadim (Vadim) on Tuesday, September 14, 2004 - 04:26 pm: Edit

Until reading this thread and doing some research, I had never before heard of dyscalculia. I have a tendency to diagnose myself with various "problems" too quickly, so I cannot say that I actually suffer from it, but I do find that while humanities- and verbally- oriented subjects come easily to me, mathematics does not. I always feel as if I am behind other students in my comprehension of mathematics, though other classes, even at the AP level, often seem too slow.

I find it very difficult to think in numerical terms, and the simplest new concepts require great amounts of concentration and thought. I find it much easier to proccess information and ideas as represented by words than by numbers.

By Mom101 (Mom101) on Tuesday, September 14, 2004 - 05:20 pm: Edit

It fit's me like a glove. At 44, I also had never heard of it until a professor I now work with spotted it in me in about 5 minutes. I was open jawed as he told me I had always had trouble with foreign languages and directions in addition to math. Those two subjects were the only ones ever that didn't come easily to me. My college French teacher asked the TA if I showed up because I "appeared so smart" to be getting Cs. My kids have insisted on leading the way since they could talk. When my instinct is to turn right I turn left and that always works.

By Aim78 (Aim78) on Tuesday, September 14, 2004 - 06:25 pm: Edit

You know how to do it? Then you just need to stop being a lazy punk and start doing your work. Suck it up.

By Anglophile (Anglophile) on Tuesday, September 14, 2004 - 06:55 pm: Edit

I always thought that learning foreign languages and math were connected-- I also have trouble with both. I'm curious if learning Ballet might be in there too, somehow using the same part of the brain. I feel retarded when I'm trying to learn math and ballet, and it takes a lot of concentration for me to learn foreign languages (though I'm good at pronunciation). I've had teachers yell at me, or just give up-- and I certainly have gained a lot of empathy for learning disabled students who have problems with everything. Thanks for sharing Mom101.

By Thebarnrat (Thebarnrat) on Tuesday, September 14, 2004 - 07:11 pm: Edit

I think its very possible to have like a mental inability to do math. I've actually had a professional (have no clue what to call her.....teacher/tutorer/phD in math person) tell me that I COULD not do math. That she'd never seen somewhat put so much effort into math and get so little from the effort. I do just fine in science, english, art, etc......but math kills me.

By Normandy6644 (Normandy6644) on Tuesday, September 14, 2004 - 08:56 pm: Edit

limit definition of the derivative:

lim(h->0) [f(x+h)-f(x)]/h

take a function. any time you see an x, replace it by (x+h) in that first term in the numerator. Example: x^2 (a nice easy one)

We'll start without writing the limit, which will come into play in a minute;


f(x+h)-f(x)=(x+h)^2 - x^2

Multiply out first term:
(x+h)^2= x^2 + 2xh + h^2

Subtract: f(x+h)-f(x)=x^2+2xh+h^2-x^2
=2xh + h^2

Now all of that is divided by h, and we are left with 2x+h.

The limit as h goes to zero doesn't affect the 2x, so leave it alone. But it does make that h go to 0, and so the final derivative (the hard way) is 2x.

I hope this helps anyone who was having problems with it. You can email me at if you want to see more or something.

By Thermodude (Thermodude) on Tuesday, September 14, 2004 - 09:26 pm: Edit

Enswim, you'll be fine. As long as you know the power rule, quotient rule (actually, the power rule can work just as fine with this one), chain rule, trig rule thingys, you'll have no trouble with taking derivatives and integrals. :-)

By 1212 (1212) on Tuesday, September 14, 2004 - 10:05 pm: Edit

CALCULAS IS SLOPE, SLOPE, SLOPE, SLOPE, SLOPE, SLOPE, SLOPE, SLOPE, SLOPE, slope, slope, slope, slope (repeat in an ebbing echo) and the "anti-slope" as i like to say

i agree, i know many math smart kids (nearly on my level) that are not comfy with calculas. Some of them are even asians. u might be thinking WHAT!$!@$#@. Asians? not good with math, lie. No its true. Some ppl are just not good with slopes, and "anti-slopes" (integrals). while others, who might not have assaulted pre-cal in the 1st degree, are mcgreevying calculas. i slept in calc, and had a 100+ test avg, under a 50% homework average, and a 5 on the AB test as a jr, with about 1 and a half hours left total to spare. some people genetically inherit calc, others dont. but here is an advice (finally) - rely 100% on your calculator, get a 89 if necessary. IF YOU HAVE ANY CURIOSITY as a human being, seems like you do, you will start scruitinizing for patterns and trends, and you will do better on the ap test and the course eventually. same thing for ap stat, i didnt know anytheories, but i was married to my calculator (and its a all calculator test) so i got a 5, in a class where the other 28 kids got 4s (asians included!!!!!; its an easy test i know; well F you) so to reiterate, trust your calculator, master it, your incessently inquiring mind will take over from there.

ps- im asian, so im not racist

By Emswim (Emswim) on Tuesday, September 14, 2004 - 10:13 pm: Edit

Thanks for the help everybody, especially Normandy6644. 1212, I know how to do everything on my calculator, but all our quizzes and tests are timed with no calculator. Can you use a calculator (Ti-86) on the AP?

By Tongos (Tongos) on Tuesday, September 14, 2004 - 10:18 pm: Edit

even though i think calculus is easy, i didnt just study for the ap test and stop there, and if i would've taken the class, it wouldnt be a "nap class." Because its easy, i would find an opportunity to help people and understand the concept further than the teacher teaches it.
Also, i try not too rely too much on the calculator, half the multiple choice test is no calculator allowed. Plus, i dont see the calculator as the best tool in success in calculus, the mind should be. Make calculus creative!
but that's just me, no, it really does work though

By Thermodude (Thermodude) on Tuesday, September 14, 2004 - 10:35 pm: Edit

In actuality, you can only use your calculator during half of the test. For the other half, no calculator is allowed. My advice would be not to use your TI very much, and instead do calculus like Newton and Gauss would have. Indeed, this will not only help you learn the material better, but it will also help you on the half of the AP test where no calculator is allowed. Additionally, knowing calculus and being skillfully adept will help on the Calculator section as well, as many of those problems require information and skills about calculus, which can only be utalized by your mind.

By Aim78 (Aim78) on Tuesday, September 14, 2004 - 11:25 pm: Edit

It's ALL slopes, but Calc makes it more difficult than it is with Riemann sums and such crap. LRAM, RRAM, MRAM, blegh.

By Thermodude (Thermodude) on Tuesday, September 14, 2004 - 11:46 pm: Edit

By contrast, I find that using Calculus to find the area underneath a curve is much more simplistic than Riemann sums.

By Mimi (Mimi) on Wednesday, September 15, 2004 - 12:01 am: Edit

I feel stupid every day I walk into Calculus. :(

By Hhboyji (Hhboyji) on Wednesday, September 15, 2004 - 12:08 am: Edit


You are like how I was last year when I was taking AP calc AB. OH MY FREAKS I just couldn't get those materiasl in my head.

I seriously did everything. I stayed after school consistently, like 3 times per week, and asked tons of questions, did all the homework, and spent so many hours studying.

I ended up with C and 2 from AP exam, which just sucks.

I didn't go on to higher math level course, and I'm taking IB MATH STUDIES SL. HAHAHA

Don't worry about it. I thought I was freaking good at math before I took Calculus, and I guess it's a different kind of math. Who knows?

By Thermodude (Thermodude) on Wednesday, September 15, 2004 - 01:02 am: Edit

Enswim, based on the fact that you said you understood shortcuts for derivatives and not taking the limits, I believe you will do well in AP Calc. Afterall, the AP test barely tests one's ability to solve derivatives using limits (which would be highly inefficient), so do not feel bad about it.

One of my friends who SCORED a 5 on the AB was in a similar position to you. He had a lot of trouble with using limits to find derivatives....but once the class moved on to other stuff he started doing good. Enswim, based on the assupmtion that you were good at pre-calc and also based on the fact that you understand the shortcuts (which actually is what most people use to find derivatives; you'll soon find this out in class), I'm sure you'll do excellent in AP Calc. Really, if you have any problems, feel free to post on CC; many of us like Normandy are willing to help you out.

By Ubercollegeman (Ubercollegeman) on Wednesday, September 15, 2004 - 04:50 am: Edit

In my opinion, there are varying degrees of calculus. For most people who don't have that weird math dyslexia disease, I can't imagine that calculus AB/BC would pose much of a problem. If one would like to reduce calculus to a system of plugging and chugging, one could, and I think almost everyone is capable of doing this.

I would guess that about 90-95% of high school students who take calculus only reach this level, which is more than good enough for pretty much everyone. It's enough to get a 5 on the AP exam, at any rate.

Occasionally, there are some calculus students, maybe one in an entire class of 30, who go out of their way to realize concepts. They see the intuitive nature in calculus and are more than comfortable with calculus. It MAKES SENSE to them.

Once in a great while, you might find a high school student who is far better than his years imply. These students are very comfortable with proof-writing and solving "interesting" problems.

So in conclusion, I think that almost everyone can learn calculus as a system of plugging and chugging. It takes a greater student to go beyond that, though.

For example, anyone can do a basic problem out of Larson's/Thomas'/Stewart's calculus textbooks, or the other "popular" calculus ones. These are typical AP questions. It takes a far better student to solve one of Spivak's challenges, just to take an example.

By Limon (Limon) on Wednesday, September 15, 2004 - 10:40 am: Edit

Can I just say that I think it's idiotic and unfounded for half the people in this thread to suddenly claim, "Hey! I don't understand math! Maybe it's a disease!" It's like half the bi-polar teenagers - who hasn't had mood swings?

Understanding math can have a lot to do with how you learn it. If all you learn are formulas and basic theorems, you're going to have trouble with anything much beyond the known. If, however, you do every proof and can visualize every equation and know what it all means, you're going to understand it. A lot of "math dyslexia" can simply be not taking the time to do the proof or make the connections.

(In the same way that not everyone who's not a good reader is dyslexic, they just don't read much and have •••••• English)

By Noodleman (Noodleman) on Wednesday, September 15, 2004 - 10:53 am: Edit

I'm finding this thread interesting. I, too, seem to have trouble with foreign languages, math, and directions. I had never connected the three. That being said, I see no reason to label myself as suffering the "syndrome du jour."

I simply "suck it up" as another poster suggested, and work extra-hard at all of them. In fact, I was second choice for "Outstanding French Student" last year (my professor confided in me) which was no mean feat, believe me.

I've never finished with less than an "A" in any foreign language or math class. They just make me sweat and twitch, is all.

So, yeah--maybe there is a syndrome, but hey: kwitcherbitchin.

By Emeraldkity4 (Emeraldkity4) on Wednesday, September 15, 2004 - 02:16 pm: Edit

there is a finite level of acheivement for many people, but there is also a type of disability called dyscalculia.
My oldest daughter has been able to complete her calculus requirement at one of toughest colleges in country but she has difficulty with simple computation.

By Ctrain890 (Ctrain890) on Wednesday, September 15, 2004 - 02:26 pm: Edit

Calculus is a hard transition for a lot of people because--to some degree--it's totally different from any other branch of mathematics you've studied before, and you have to change the way you look at and think about problems accordingly. If you don't have a really good teacher and a really good book, you'll be screwed.

I took BC Calc last year and the first quarter was hell. The teacher was great, but she primarily taught the course according to the book, which absolutely sucked. I too had always been good in math, but I struggled soooooo badly in that class (I think I got two C's and a D on the first three tests).

Eventually I just went in for extra help a ton, and my teacher gave me a really really great text book which I used to study for tests and stuff. After that I was flying, and by the end of the year I had an A average, and I got a 5 on the AP test, so go figure.

I've found that any time you are having trouble learning new material--whether it is calculus or history or a foreign language--it helps to consult multiple sources. Many books (and teachers, unfortunately) present the material in a fragmented way, and they either don't give you enough background information, or don't explain a new concept fully enough, or don't give enough examples to work with, so consequently you are left with huge gaps which are often difficult to resolve for yourself. Using multiple sources, while it does take a bit more effort on your part, definitely helps do give a more comprehensive and complete understanding of the material.

For example, when I was learning Japanese a few years ago, I had to get three books: one to go over grammar & vocab, one for writing, and one for authentic examples to practice with. All three were marketed as "complete beginner's guides," but all fell woefully short in one area or another.

So...yeah. Do that :-)

By Tongos (Tongos) on Wednesday, September 15, 2004 - 03:21 pm: Edit

i cant tell right from left, well i can, but it takes me a while. most of the time i use north, south, east, and west.
I know someone who can do logarithms in their head but cant do simple addition of one digit numbers.

By Emswim (Emswim) on Wednesday, September 15, 2004 - 05:08 pm: Edit

Calculus went much better today. I got yesterday's quiz on derivatives back, and I got an A! Thanks for the help everybody, I think I can do calc now.

By Thermodude (Thermodude) on Wednesday, September 15, 2004 - 07:22 pm: Edit

wow!!! nice job!! See, I knew you would do good in Calc. Keep up the goodwork!!!! :-D

By Silent_Angel (Silent_Angel) on Wednesday, September 15, 2004 - 07:30 pm: Edit

I started off kind of poorly... we get homework sheets with lists of problems to do and she grades us based on if we did them... its up to us to see if we got them correct. well if i had a question on the problem *even though the answer is in the back of the book* i would leave it blank but put a question mark there.. well i got docked points. so since my best friend and i are in it together.. i adapted her technique... she puts down the answer from the back so she doesnt get docked points.. but she puts a question mark beside the number. I got my test from yesterday back and i failed it. I am doing horrible in the class... i have the 2nd to lowest grade in the class at a 72.15 percent *c-* :( i am soo upset.. i hate it.. i was ahead of my grade in math from 8th grade till 10th. pre calc was a lil hard but i passed it with .1 percent off of a b- . i really hope i start understanding better... i am just now starting to learn derivatives... so we'll see *cries in shame and deppression*

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