The late Justin Price was for many years a professor of mathematics at Purdue University. Price was particularly interested in math education, and one of his students passed this list (dated 1991) on to me. It certainly captures the way a lot of the apathetic math students I’ve known seem to think about mathematics—though for #8, five minutes might be more accurate than 30 seconds! I’ve put this list on my class websites. I don’t know if my students paid attention it, but I think it’s worthwhile for math teachers to think about these popular misconceptions. (Thanks to Paul Weedling for sharing this list with me.)
1. Math is a bunch of formulas and rules. Doing math means plugging numbers into formulas and moving symbols around using the rules.
2. Only a genius knows where the formulas and rules come from. So just accept them and use them.
3. Memorize everything and you’ll be OK.
4. Know how mathematical operations work. You never need to know why they work.
5. The most important thing is getting answers. If you get the right answer, that proves that you understand the math.
6. Every problem has an answer.
7. To solve a problem, just follow the steps in the book. Any problem that is not exactly like one worked in the book is unfair.
8. Any problem that takes more than 30 seconds is either impossible or unfair.
9. Story problems are unfair.
10. There is one way to do a problem—the book’s way. No other way is allowed. Guessing the answer is strictly illegal.
11. Common sense is OK in real life, but it has nothing to do with math.
12. Reading and writing are for English classes; they have nothing to do with math.
13. Math comes in separate subjects: algebra, geometry, calculus, etc. There are no connections between the subjects.
14. Math can never be interesting or fun.