How to Understand Math Equations

Math formulas can be hard to understand. If math isn’t your strongest subject, there are ways to get better at math. Here’s how to understand math equations.

In high school trigonometry but failing badly? Are you a college student starting your first semester of algebra or calculus?

Do the math equations and symbols leave you with a feeling of confusion?

Try not to get too frustrated because you’re not alone. Mathematics is complicated even on a good day, and there’s a reason for that.

Mathematics builds layers and layers of functions on top of itself.

So, what’s the key to knowing how to understand math? Thinking of math as a foreign language.


Just like with a foreign language, you’ll need to learn dozens of symbols, new words, and how to properly write the formulas in a way that makes sense to other native speakers.

Math isn’t easy, but our guide can help you make math a little bit more bearable (and maybe bump up your grades).

How to Understand Math

There are a few steps to becoming better at math. The steps are memorizing the symbols, making a formula sheet (plus notes), understanding the context of the equation, practicing example problems, and building on what you already know.


Instead of memorizing the formulas and equations, you’ll be better off committing to memory the symbols that will often appear in those same formulas.

By memorizing the symbols, you’ll be able to read the formulas and obtain an understanding of what the formula wants you to do, aka the goal of the equation.

Formulas are all about understanding how two or more things relate to each other. For example, a distance formula wants you to figure out the distance of object A from object B. However, to know what the distance formula wants, you need to recognize the symbols for object A and B.

Otherwise, how will you know what you need to calculate?

Memorize. Memorize as much of the given vocabulary as you can.

Use flash cards or post-it notes to help if you can’t keep all of the symbols straight in your head or you tend to mix up two symbols with each other.

Formula Sheets

Making notes are a handy way to keeping track of all the information you are learning from your algebra class, but we suggest making a sheet that lists the formulas you are learning and have already learned up to that point.

Include even the more basic formulas you learned in elementary, middle, and high school.

Remember, math builds on what you’ve already learned, but we’ll talk more on that later.

A formula sheet makes learning math easier for you because you won’t have to memorize all of the new vocabulary and the formulas at the same time.

Besides, memorizing formulas is all well and good, but unless you can read those formulas and understand their goals, you won’t be able to solve them even when they’re presented differently.

Oh, did we mention there are multiple ways to write the same formula?

There’s another reason why memorizing the formulas themselves isn’t as beneficial as memorizing the symbols and their meanings.

Of course, don’t use formula sheets as a crutch because you won’t always have them.

Math Builds Up

We’ve already mentioned how math builds on itself twice now, but to reiterate, math builds on what you’ve learned in previous classes throughout your academic history.

Even the most complicated mathematical equations are built on the simplest math concepts you learned in elementary school.

To understand the math you are learning now, it’s best to go back to the concepts and formulas you already know.

Make sure you have a solid foundation before moving on to the next concept. Jumping ahead before you’re ready will leave you struggling to understand anything.

It’s easier to learn when you can see how one math equation builds on another and so on.

Understand the Goal

Once you’ve built up your vocabulary and have a solid foundation to work off, math will become much easier for you.

Your next step is to apply what you know to analyzing the formulas.

Every formula has a goal it wants you to solve for, and specific formulas have specific situations in which they are used.

After all, you wouldn’t use a distance formula to calculate the density of an object.

By understanding the formulas, you’ll be able to categorize new formulas accurately when you learn them and when to apply them.

Consequently, if you are given just a formula to solve, you’ll be able to recognize what to solve for even when the formula appears differently from how you were original taught.

Practice, Practice, Practice

The essential part of learning a language, even one as tough as math, is practicing what you learned.

If the only time you ever look at mathematical equations is when you’re in class or doing homework, then you’re not practicing enough nor are you really learning the material.

To excel at anything let alone math, you need to practice it constantly.

A great way to practice math is by talking about what you learned out loud or teaching it to yourself and others.

Teaching especially helps you understand the concepts because you’re forced to understand why it has to be that way. Teaching the formulas you learned also reinforces the lesson in your head while helping others.

Try solving as many practice questions as you can too.

The more you see an equation and the various ways it can be presented, the more you’ll learn and understand how to solve it no matter what.

You’ll also know you’ve gotten a lesson down when you solve most of the questions correctly without needing to look at your formula sheet for guidance.

Not the End

If you’re still having trouble with math equations and just don’t know how to understand math formulas, that’s okay!

Math is complex and just isn’t for everyone. So when you’re having trouble reading the formulas, try skipping ahead in the problem.

If you can understand even a part of the problem, you can work backward and piece out what the problem expects from you. Working backward will help you understand the parts you couldn’t before.

And if you’re sick of math, you can always check out our blog for other life tips!