Kerry Johnson-xyzMath, for many students, can be a major hurdle to jump in a University setting.

Every semester I have at least one student that is struggling ask me how to be successful.  Every semester I give them the following  tips.  Every student that followed these principles was successful in the course. Those students who have not followed the tips very often do fail.

Let’s get a few things out of the way first:

  1.  Math is hard.
  2. I don’t like math.
  3. I can’t do math.
  4. What am I ever going to use this for?

The list goes on and on.  I’ve been teaching math for over 20 years now and I’ve pretty much heard it all.  I’ll even agree with that math can be difficult at times.  The problem is that without math, there really isn’t anything left:  No video games, no TV, no cell phones, no cars, no houses, etc.  You can’t even grow food without being aware of calendar cycles.  If we all wake up tomorrow and no one can do any math, our civilization crumbles to dust within a week.  The point here is that we not only need math, but we need a society that is fairly competent at it.

Over the previous decade I have noticed a disturbing trend.  A large number of students coming to college are unprepared for college level mathematics and many are unsuccessful in courses that they do take.  For several years, I have monitored student study habits trying to understand why so many are not successful.  One of the major problems is that a large proportion of the students coming in don’t seem to know how to study for a math class.  I would like to share some tips for success that I give my students each semester.

Plan to Spend a Lot of Time on the Course

Math is a time intensive discipline.  In order to master the concepts it is going to take a lot of time.  Look at your schedule.  If you don’t have at least an hour or two five days a weeks to spend on the course outside of class, then your chances of being successful are extremely low.  If you are working too many hours or if your schedule is too busy, you might consider putting your math off a semester.  There is little point in taking the class if you won’t have a significant amount of time spend on it.

Spread it Out

A lot of students assume that they can just cram the night or morning before a quiz or a test and do fine.  That method does not work in a math class.  You might get a decent score on the quiz or the test, but there is a big problem.  All the topics in a math class are highly integrated.  That means you can’t understand the new material unless you have mastered everything that came before.  Cramming the night before might let you get through the test the next day, but you won’t remember the material next week.  The new material is going to look foreign because you don’t have the knowledge from the previous sections.

Think of math like a sport.  If you have a big game coming up in two weeks, you don’t wait to practice until the night before.  You practice every day up until the game.  You need to study the material over several days each week in smaller bites.  If you master the material in smaller pieces over several days, the information will make it to your long term memory.  It will be there when you start the next topic.  The more often you practice, the better you will do when it counts.

Never study for more than one hour without a break.  The mind can only take so much.  It needs time to process the information and store it in your long term memory.  The breaks after each hour give your mind the time it needs to store the information.

Don’t Wait to Get Help

If you are stuck on a homework problem for more than 5 minutes without a clue how to start it, go ask somebody for help or reread the section in the book. Once you get frustrated, it becomes easier to just quit and there is no point in banging your head against a wall if you don’t know how to even start the problem.

Your goal is to master each and every topic covered in class.  If you are having difficulty understanding a topic, don’t wait.  Go get help as soon as you can.  In most cases, you won’t be able to move on to the next topic until you have mastered the current one.  Once you are two or more weeks behind, it becomes extremely difficult to recover.

There are tons of resources available to help you:

  1. Go see the instructor during his or her office hours
  2. Go to the Student Success Center for tutoring
  3. Use the help functions in the MyMathLab program
  4. You can even watch lecture videos at the Khan Academy

There is help available 24/7 and you don’t have to wait.

 Get a New Attitude

If you go into a class thinking that you hate it, you are no good at it, and that you are probably going to fail then all these things will most certainly come true.  What do you think would happen if a sports team went into a big game with the same attitude?

You need to start fresh.  Forget about all your unpleasant past experiences in math.  That is the past.  You don’t have to be a genius to be successful in a math class.  You only have to work hard and get help when you are stuck.  Decide for yourself that this time is going to be different.  This time you are going to work so hard that there is no way you can fail.

If you have students that come ask you what to do about their math class, please feel free to share these tips with them.

— Dr. Kerry Johnson
Professor, Mathematics