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Tips for being successful in math courses

Learning math can be very challenging. There is no universal formula for how to be successful in a math course, but here are some suggestions that many students find helpful.

1. Put in the appropriate amount of work.

For a student with average abilities, a four-credit course should require about twelve hours of work per week (including class time). Some students will pick up the subject more quickly and not require the full twelve hours, and others will need to put in more than twelve. That is okay, and part of normal human variation. But don’t expect that putting in just a few hours per week will lead to success. If you find yourself needing to work more than sixteen hours per week to be successful in a course, go and talk about this with your instructor.

2. Put in the appropriate quality of work.

Occasionally we get students who complain, “I put in twelve hours per week for the whole quarter but I still failed!” It’s not just about time, though; it’s also about what you were doing during those twelve hours. Were you texting on your cell phone every two minutes while you did your homework each week? Were you doing homework while watching your favorite TV program? Modern technology has made it more and more difficult for students to focus and concentrate, but concentration is extremely important for learning math. Develop the habit of putting away all distractions during your study time. Doing your studying in a library can be very helpful in this regard.

3. Understand the learning process.

Most people don’t immediately understand a new concept the first time they encounter it, unless the concept is very simple. Most math concepts aren’t simple! Usually you will understand a basic outline or a certain percentage of the key ideas, but it takes repeated exposure to a concept to really “get it”. There can also be a big difference between understanding the theory behind a concept and being able to actually implement it in examples. Doing lots of sample problems is important for revealing holes in your knowledge and helping lead you to a better level of comprehension.

4. Read the textbook.

Sometimes students go through a whole course and never read the textbook except to look up the homework problems. This is crazy! It is true that reading math can be hard, but this is part of the skills you should be developing in the course. It takes practice, but you can do it! Ideally you should be reading about a concept before you hear an instructor talk about it, and then again after you heard it talked about. This is part of the “repeated exposure” aspect of the learning process.

5. Start the homework early.

Everyone procrastinates. Mark Twain famously wrote, “Never put off till tomorrow what you can do the day after tomorrow.” But while procrastination is common, it is also one of your greatest enemies in a math course. It is extremely important that you be working on exercises continuously as you are learning the material, and not cramming them all in the day before the homework is due.

Don’t think the homework is going to be easy! Math problems are hard for everyone. You are going to get stuck, and in fact you are supposed to get stuck. That process of getting stuck, and working your way out of it (with help if need be), is part of the learning process. You need to allow enough time for this to happen!

6. Make use of office hours.

Students sometimes think that they are supposed to attend class, read the book, and then be able to do all the homework problems perfectly. That does happen sometimes, but it is very common to get stuck on some problems. That is part of the learning process!

Understand that office hours are not just for students who have special problems, they are for everyone. One of the most successful ways to improve your overall learning is to regularly attend office hours and ask questions about the things you are stuck on. For most people, learning math is much easier when it is done by communicating directly with another person. Take advantage of office hours!

7. Use tutors appropriately.

Some students do all of their homework with a tutor sitting next to them. When a student gets stuck, they ask the tutor what to do next and the tutor tells them. That might get the student through the homework, but what happens when it is time to take the exam and the tutor isn’t there anymore?! Often students who use tutors are fooled into thinking they understand the material, only to find the truth at exam time.

If you use a tutor, it is important to redo problems yourself when the tutor is not around. Or better yet, force yourself to work on different (but similar) problems and see how it goes.

8. Understand that math isn’t about memorization.

Everything in mathematics has a reason and a story behind it. Being successful in learning and applying mathematics involves learning these stories, not just memorizing isolated techniques. Students who just memorize a technique can maybe do one particular type of problem, but successfully learning mathematics involves understanding how to apply your knowledge to lots of different types of problems.

Sometimes students are frustrated that the problems on an exam aren’t exactly like the problems that were on the quizzes, and that the problems on the quizzes aren’t exactly like the problems on the homework. Don’t expect this!