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Math by Blain -- Tips for Success in Your Math Class

So you're going to be taking a math class that you're really not looking forward to? You have some choices to make. You can prepare to make this as good an experience as it can be, where you'll learn the material and maybe even be able to use it constructively in your life. Or you can drag your heels and have a very painful experience, learning little except how bad math classes are to your GPA.

Most folks will opt for the latter choice, which gives those who choose the former option a competitive advantage over them. If you would like this competitive advantage, let me suggest the following steps:

  1. Take responsibility for your math experience. This is the most important thing you can do to give yourself the optimal chance for success in your class. Your learning and your grade will be decided more by you than by anybody else, including the teacher. Should your teacher actually be crappy, you will be far better served by doing what you need to do to get the learning and grade you want than in moaning over how crappy the teacher is (like most of the folks in the class will be doing).
  2. Make a plan for success. As the old saw goes, if you fail to plan, you can plan to fail. Math will probably demand more from you than you expect and more than you will want to give.
  3. Begin your preparation well before the class starts. Get the book for your class as soon as possible, and read the introduction/preface and Chapter 1. If there are any concepts in Chapter 1 which are at all uncomfortable, identify those concepts and schedule time to practice using them so that they will be completely familiar before class starts if at all possible. Allocate yourself at least an hour or two of study time every day for your math. If you find you need more, schedule more. If you need less, you can use the time, but it's best to keep that much time available should the class take a turn for the tougher. But studying every day is important, because the more time you spend away from the skills you've just learned, the more of them you will forget when you get back to it. For this same reason, plan to take your math classes consecutively with no breaks (except, perhaps, for summer, and, then, prepare to spend time on your own mastering your spring class and preparing for your fall class).
  4. Build a math text library. Keep all your math texts, and seek out inexpensive texts (like texts that are no longer used and are sometimes even given away) for any previous course you no longer have the text for and any classes you are likely to be taking yet, in addition to the course you're preparing for now. One or two texts at each level can be a great help when the text you're using isn't making sense and you need a different explanation. The earlier texts are handy anytime you come across a concept you find that you're rusty on -- the earlier explanations will likely be more complete and easier to understand, since they're geared toward people who've never seen them before.
  5. Form and work with a study group within the first week of class. Look for folks who take the class seriously and want to learn, and whose personalities are reasonably compatible with yours. Sit together during lectures so you can ask each other questions as they come up during the lecture (unless, of course, the instructor objects). Meet as soon after lectures as possible to clarify any questions still unresolved after the lecture, and so you can work on your assignments with the information fresh in your mind. If there are questions that seem beyond the understanding of anybody in the group, involving a tutor in these sessions can be a wise investment *. The group will not only provide you with help in learning the material -- it will provide you with opportunities to help explain what you're learning to someone else, which will give you an even greater understanding of the material. I've learned far more from tutoring others than I ever learned when I took the classes myself.
  6. When doing homework assignments, check your answers as you go. If you're not understanding what you're doing, it's better to find out immediately than to think you're done with the assignment and find out that you blew the whole thing. You also spend more of your time practicing doing things the right way, rather than mastering approaches that don't give right answers.
  7. Play with your calculator. Learn what it can do to help you. Read through the manual to familiarize yourself with its features. If it's a graphing calculator, learn how to draw pictures with it (like a smiley face). Your calculator is a very powerful tool, but it can only help you when you are familiar with how it does what it does, and that only comes with time and practice.