Why so many students underperform in Mathematics and what to do about it


  1. Fear
  2. Incorrect approach
  3. Limited practice
  4. Cognitive limitations
  5. Isolation
  6. Discouragement
  7. Bad teachers

In so many schools and on all levels, Mathematics is always a problem to the vast majority of students. Therefore, it’s not like under performance is unheard of in Math. Actually, some students normalize it and before you know, you hear statements like “Math just isn’t my thing”, “I’m not good at Math, so I don’t waste time on it” and many others like that.

Firstly, let’s explore the causes of this level of failure among students, then potentially use it as a basis to find solutions and make all students excel in the subject.

1. Fear

First of all, Mathematics strikes fear in a lot of students. Of course, this doesn’t come out of nowhere, because Math is a logical subject. These are some of the reasons students fear the subject;

  • Previous failures in the subject
  • If they haven’t understood certain previous concepts and fear to pile up more
  • Hearsay
  • Terrifying teachers

Due to these factors, some students become too scared that it can take them down the slippery slope of failure until they decide to break the cycle.


Here are some solutions to their fear for the subject;

  • Teach them to interpret the subject simply
  • Ask them to tell you all the myths and debunk them
  • Make it fun for them
  • Refrain from discouraging statements

2. Incorrect approach

This is common in very many students across the country. So many students don’t know how to approach Math. These are some of the terrible mistakes they make.

  • Cramming
  • Reading notes like in other subjects
  • Trying to solve the huge problems first
  • Not attempting to interpret the questions in terms they understand well.

As a result of such, we have and shall still have students fail Math, and they cannot ever break this cycle unless a teacher or a fellow student helps them out.


  • Show students that interacting with lots of numbers is better than cramming a solution to one number
  • Teach them computational thinking, where they learn to break down complex problems to small chunks and solve  them systematically
  • Use words to translate problems to terms they can understand properly
  • Use local language if need arises

3. Limited practice

So many students fail Mathematics over and over again because they don’t practice regularly. Math only gets better the more you interact with it. However, so many students fail to practice regularly because;

  • They lack the discipline
  • Lack of motivation
  • Limited resources
  • No access to teachers for guidance


As a teacher, you have to guide your students on how to practice math regularly, and below are the strategies you can take;

  • Provide resources like UNEB question banks for your students to interact with questions and become familiar with answering them
  • Be available for students so you can mark, correct and guide them more on their quest
  • Encouraging them to practice a little a day so they can stay motivated

4. Cognitive limitations

Let’s face it, there are some students that are not as intellectually gifted as the rest of their classmates, and as such they usually need extra attention to perform better. Here’s why they fail mathematics;

  • The pace at which  they learn is arguably slower
  • Their interpretation rate Is slower
  • It’s hard for them to guide themselves during time for revision
  • They try to use the same techniques as other students, so they continue to fail


To be honest, noticing such a student among the rest is the most important and most difficult thing to do. Here are a few strategies to identify and help them.

  • Have a deep conversation to try to understand them
  • Get them to admit that they need help
  • Devise other techniques to teach them better
  • Encourage them to use repetition
  • Teach them to interpret things simply and in their local languages
  • Encourage them

5. Isolation

Of course, this isn’t like in the movies where people lock themselves up in their rooms and refuse to go out and attend social events. The truth is, there are some students that are less extroverted than the rest of their classmates. Below are some of the ways it affects their understanding of math;

  • Prohibits them from asking for help from fellow students and teachers
  • They easily give up on things they have failed to solve
  • It’s hard for them to raise a hand and ask questions in the classrooms

Let’s face it, there are some geeky students that can do well on their own and don’t interact with their peers. But for a student who lags behind on some subjects, isolation is the total dream killer.


  • Identify the student
  • Show them that you understand their personality and you don’t judge them
  • Give them a reason to confide in you
  • Be available whenever they need help

6. Discouragement

Discouragement is one of the most detrimental things for students in all academic subjects. Here are some of the things that cause it;

  • Negative talk from teachers and/ or parents
  • Frustration from competition with fellow students
  • Negative self-talk
  • Personal problems eg lack of school fees.

There are so many other causes of discouragement, but their effects are almost the same. Discouragement, however, can be ended together with its effects.


  • Counseling the discouraged students
  • Discouraging students from unnecessary competitiveness
  • Dissuading students from negative self-talk

7. Bad teachers

This isn’t about their intelligence, but their ability to teach students effectively. Not all teachers are alike, and there are so many things that separate a good teacher from a bad one. Here’s what makes bad teachers

  • They don’t explain the concepts for students to understand well
  • Some don’t even understand certain concepts well enough to solve them effortlessly
  • They make it seem too hard
  • Verbally discouraging students from trying hard
  • Being unavailable for students to consult

To solve this, you just have to be the exact opposite of the definition of a bad teacher.


To the failure of students in any subject, a combination of both internal and external factors comes in play. Therefore, students have to be advised on the effective ways to solve these problems, and teachers also have to review and refine their own teaching methods to make sure they aren’t the wall between their students and good grades.

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