Math class. Just reading those words can strike fear into the hearts of many students. The thought of enrolling in a college math class can be overwhelming. And yet, many colleges have a math requirement. It is a barrier between you and your degree.
Take a deep breath. There are a few insider tricks no one ever told you about. It is not some secret knowledge math professors refuse to share. It never occurred to them that anyone would not know those tricks. Your math professors became math professors because they liked math, were good at it, and worked hard to get better. It is therefore hard for them to relate to students who hate math and have a mixed record of success doing it.
Despite being rather proficient in math myself, I had my own stumbles along the way. I struggled with high school algebra. It took several tutoring sessions, but I eventually “got it.” It happened again in college calculus. I did not know the tricks, and I struggled as a result.
Here are the tricks you need to know.
Trick #1. Stop thinking of math problems as math problems. They are actually puzzles. Your job is to solve puzzles, not problems.
Trick #2. Recognize that your professor is using class time to teach you the rules to puzzle-solving. You will probably be introduced to a rule, and then see the rule applied to a few different puzzles. In your class notes, write down: RULE and then write it out in words.
Trick #3. If you are not 100% sure you understand the rule, raise your hand and ask. Read your notes back to the professor, and ask if that is correct. Revise your rule if necessary.
Trick #4. Always, ALWAYS! Do the assigned homework, especially if the homework is not collected. And check that your answers are correct.
Trick #5. When you get stuck on a math puzzle—and you will get stuck no mater how good you are—move on to the next puzzle. If you are stuck on that one too, stop working. Write your professor or TA an email. Tell them that you got stuck. Send a photo of your work. Your email should say something like: To solve this puzzle, I first applied the ____rule. Then for my next step, I got stuck. I was not sure what rule to use. Can you tell me how to make it past this step, what rule is used, and why. Thanks!”
Imagine you are the professor for a minute. You get two emails from students. One student says “I don’t get problem #4. How do you do it?” The other student uses trick #5. Both students are doing the right thing by asking for help, but one of them is going to be easy to help. And the other student? Not so much. There could be many different reasons the student doesn’t “get it.” A good professor wants to do more than help the student solve a particular puzzle. The student needs to discover the general rules to solve a whole class of puzzles.
Trick #6. If you are really struggling, take advantage of your university’s math tutoring services. These are usually offered free of charge. I would define “really struggling” as being unable to solve a third or more of the math puzzles assigned for homework. Working with a tutor will supercharge Tricks #3 and #5. Moreover, a good tutor will help you build self-confidence in your math abilities.
If you want to get strong, lift weights or do some kind resistance training. You can’t get stronger by going to a class on strength training. By extension, if you want to get better at math, work on math puzzles. Going to class and taking notes is not enough.