How to Overcome the Difficulty of Learning New Concepts

Understanding new concepts, particularly in subjects as challenging as mathematics, can often feel like an uphill battle.

This struggle, however, is not a sign of inadequacy but rather an integral part of the learning process. Human cognition is designed to thrive on challenges; our minds expand when encountering new and complex problems. The psychology of learning further substantiates this, illustrating that cognitive dissonance— the mental discomfort experienced when confronted with new information— is a precursor to intellectual growth.

This article will explore the various facets of learning struggles, from the common pitfalls many students encounter to the psychological aspects underpinning these challenges. We will also provide actionable strategies and resources to help you understand these complex concepts and master them. Read on to discover how to transform your academic struggles into stepping stones for success.

Why Struggling in the Beginning is Normal


The Learning Curve

Understanding that everyone has a unique learning curve is crucial for personal academic development. Some individuals may grasp new concepts quickly, while others may require more time to understand the same material fully. This variance is not an indicator of intelligence or capability but rather a reflection of individual learning styles and prior experiences. Recognizing and respecting your own learning curve allows you to set realistic goals and timelines, reducing unnecessary stress and frustration.


Failure as a Stepping Stone

The fear of failure is a significant obstacle in the learning process. However, it's important to reframe how we view failure. Each setback provides invaluable insights into what doesn't work, offering a clearer path toward what does. Thomas Edison famously said, "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work." Adopting this mindset turns each failure into a stepping stone towards mastery, making the journey of learning a series of calculated experiments rather than a dangerous venture.


Comparison Trap

In today's hyper-competitive academic environment, it's easy to fall into the trap of comparing oneself to peers. While a certain level of competition can motivate, excessive comparison can be detrimental. It can lead to a skewed perception of one's abilities and unnecessary stress. Remember, everyone has strengths and weaknesses, and comparing your chapter one to someone else's chapter twenty is unfair and counterproductive. Focus on your journey, and celebrate the small victories along the way.

Common Pitfalls Students Encounter



One of the most significant barriers to understanding new concepts is harboring misconceptions about the subject. These misunderstandings can stem from incomplete or incorrect prior knowledge, leading to confusion and frustration. For example, many students believe that being good at math is an innate skill when, in fact, it is a skill that can be developed through practice and proper guidance. Identifying and correcting these misconceptions early on is crucial for a more straightforward and effective learning process.



The temptation to delay tackling challenging subjects is a common pitfall that can exacerbate the struggle. Procrastination often leads to cramming, which is ineffective and increases stress levels, making it even more challenging to grasp complex concepts. Effective time management and setting achievable goals are the key to overcoming procrastination. Breaking down the learning material into smaller, manageable tasks can make the process less overwhelming and more attainable.



While a lack of confidence can be paralyzing, overconfidence presents its own set of challenges. Assuming that you've fully understood a concept without thorough review and practice can lead to gaps in knowledge. These gaps may not become apparent until you're faced with more complex problems or real-world applications, at which point they become much harder to address. A balanced approach that combines confidence with critical self-review is essential for true mastery.

Tips & Tricks To Study More Effectively


Active vs. Passive Learning

When it comes to studying, not all methods are created equal. Passive learning involves activities like reading textbooks or watching lectures, which, while helpful, often don't engage the learner actively. On the other hand, active learning techniques, such as problem-solving, discussion, or teaching the concept to someone else, require you to apply what you've learned. This involved engagement helps solidify the material in your memory and leads to better understanding and retention. In essence, active learning makes you actively participate in your education rather than a mere spectator.


Chunking Information

Complex subjects can often feel overwhelming, making it difficult to know where to start. Overcoming this difficulty is where the concept of "chunking" comes in handy. By breaking down the material into smaller, more manageable "chunks," you can focus on understanding each piece before moving on to the next. This approach makes the learning process more manageable and allows for easier recall and application of the material. Think of it as assembling a puzzle: connecting smaller groups of pieces is easier than trying to fit everything at once.


Spaced Repetition

The human memory is not a "one-and-done" system; it requires reinforcement over time. Spaced repetition involves revisiting and reviewing material at increasing intervals over time. This technique leverages the psychological spacing effect and is proven to increase retention and understanding. By planning your study schedule to include regular review sessions, you can ensure that the material stays fresh in your mind, making it easier to recall when needed.

Real-World Applications


Career Relevance

Understanding the real-world applications of a subject can provide a significant motivational boost. For instance, mathematics is not just about solving equations on paper; it's a critical skill in various professions like engineering, data science, economics, and healthcare. Knowing that mastering a challenging subject could open doors to a fulfilling and lucrative career can serve as a powerful incentive to overcome academic hurdles.


Daily Life

Believe it or not, the subjects that challenge us in school often have practical applications in our daily lives. Mathematics, for example, is used in budgeting, home improvement projects, and even cooking. Recognizing these everyday applications can make the subject matter feel less abstract and more relevant, reducing resistance to learning.



The subjects we find challenging today are often the building blocks of tomorrow's innovations. A deep understanding of complex subjects can lead to groundbreaking discoveries and technological advancements. For example, mathematical algorithms form the basis of many technologies we take for granted today, such as search engines and secure online transactions. By mastering challenging academic concepts, you're not just improving your grades; you're equipping yourself with the tools to change the world potentially.

The Importance of Mindset & Mental Health


Growth Mindset

The "Growth Mindset" concept, popularized by psychologist Carol Dweck, posits that dedication and hard work can develop abilities and intelligence. Adopting a growth mindset can be transformative in academic settings, shifting the focus from innate talent to effort and resilience. When you believe you can improve, challenges become opportunities for learning rather than insurmountable obstacles. This mindset can be particularly empowering when grappling with complex subjects, turning struggles into stepping stones to mastery.


Stress Management

Academic stress is an unfortunate but often unavoidable aspect of learning. However, there are various techniques to manage this stress effectively. Mindfulness meditation, deep-breathing exercises, and short physical workouts can help alleviate stress and improve focus. Also, time-management skills like setting specific goals and creating study schedules can reduce stress by making learning more organized and predictable.


Importance of Rest

While it may be tempting to pull all-nighters or cram for exams, the importance of rest cannot be overstated. Adequate sleep is crucial for memory retention, problem-solving abilities, and overall cognitive function. Furthermore, taking short breaks during study sessions—known as the Pomodoro Technique—can improve focus and productivity. Rest is not a luxury; it's necessary for effective learning and mental well-being.

Helpful Resources


Books and Textbooks

While digital resources are abundant, there's still immense value in traditional books and textbooks for in-depth learning. For mathematics, titles like "How to Solve It" by George Pólya or "Calculus Made Easy" by Silvanus P. Thompson offer timeless insights. These books cover the subject matter and teach effective problem-solving strategies, making them must-reads for anyone looking to master challenging concepts. Alternatively, I've written over ten best-selling SAT Prep books on how to crack the SAT and ACT, which remain extremely popular with students. Be sure to check those out as well. 


Online Courses

The internet is a treasure trove of educational material, and online courses offer structured learning from the comfort of your home. Platforms like Coursera, Udemy, and my own SAT Prep course provide classes on a wide range of subjects, often taught by leading experts in the field. These courses usually include interactive exercises and quizzes, offering a more engaging learning experience than traditional study methods.


YouTube Channels

Sometimes, a visual explanation can make a complex topic instantly understandable. YouTube channels offer high-quality videos that break down complicated subjects into digestible pieces. These channels are not just supplementary to your primary study material but can often provide unique insights and alternative approaches to understanding challenging concepts. 


Mastering challenging subjects is not a sprint but a marathon, requiring intellectual effort and emotional resilience. The journey is fraught with pitfalls and obstacles, but as explored in this article, these challenges are not dead-ends but signposts guiding you toward effective learning strategies and personal growth.

The path to academic success is multifaceted, from understanding the psychology of learning to implementing effective study techniques. It's crucial to remember that struggle is an integral part of the process, serving as both a challenge to overcome and a measure of your progress. As you navigate the complexities of your academic journey, remember the wealth of resources available, from traditional books to online platforms and visual aids. The tools for success are at your fingertips; all required is the willingness to engage, adapt, and grow.

So, the next time you grapple with a complex concept, take a moment to step back and reframe the struggle as an opportunity to learn, grow, and inch one step closer to your ultimate goals.

Master the the SATs and ACTs with the best examination prep experience anywhere. One-on-One sessions with Brian Leaf. The best-selling author of 10 SAT/ACT prep books.


Top 50 Skills

Subscribe to my newsletter