Success in Learning Mathematics
There are three keys to learning mathematics that are within your control. Those are attitude, work ethic, and study skills.
Viewing a challenge as an opportunity
Do you know anyone that has sailed through life without ever having had to face challenges? Yea, me neither. Life presents challenges for all of us. What is important is not so much the individual challenges that we face, but what we decide to do with those challenges when they arise.
Challenges that we face on our journey through life can either be viewed as difficulties or opportunities. Every failure has embedded in it a seed from which we can learn and grow. There is always a choice to view a failure or a difficulty as an opportunity for growth and change. Nobody can take your perspective from you. Nobody can dictate what that perspective should be. Your perspective is yours alone. It is internal and for that reason you have a choice as to how you shape your life based on those perceptions.
Why would I be writing about this on a website that delivers math instruction? It’s because math is often a huge challenge for students. For many students, it is that one class that prevents them from completing their degree. If that is you, I encourage you to view learning mathematics as an opportunity to learn how to persevere through something that is difficult for you. Our culture has become obsessed with image and obsessed with instantaneous gratification. Character is not built from either of those things. So if learning math is a challenge for you, I encourage you to adjust the lens with which you view it. Commit to learning it and doing what is necessary to make it through those classes. That doesn’t mean you will always like it, and that is ok. Learning how to persevere through something you don’t like doing is a valuable asset in the building of your character and your career.
It is also important to pay attention to how you speak to yourself about mathematics. If you are constantly repeating “I hate math” or “I’m not good at math” then you will draw more experiences to you that support that belief. I know it can be difficult, but try to pay attention to how you speak to yourself when you are learning math. Even slight shifts in self-talk from “I’m no good at math” to “I’m getting better at it” can make a huge difference in your experience of learning the subject. And if you are experiencing math anxiety, please see my article on that subject for more information and some possible solutions to the problem.
I wish I could tell you that learning math is easy, but you already know that it isn’t for many people. Some people do learn it with ease, but those people aren’t likely to be the ones reading this article. Many people, and I will include myself in this category, have to work hard to succeed at this subject. There is a famous quote from Maya Angelou that I love. She said: “Nothing will work unless you do.” That rings so true to me. Working hard to achieve a goal is such an important skill to acquire in life. If you learn that skill now while you are learning mathematics, it will stick with you and benefit you for the rest of your life.
Write it down!
Throughout my teaching career, I have found that the old school way of doing math—meaning sitting down with a piece of paper and a pencil and writing out mathematics —is still by far the best way for students to learn the subject. You will hear on many of the videos that I encourage you to take notes with me as I lecture. This is because simply watching me do math, while that is helpful, does not necessarily translate into you being able to do the math. There is something that happens when you write the subject down that lodges what you are learning into your brain. I don’t know the exact science behind it, but I know from years of experience that writing the math down is a critical part of the learning process. If we operate under the premise that math is a language, which it most certainly is, then it would make sense that writing it would be a critical part of learning it.
Show all of your skip steps
In addition to writing it down, I encourage you to show all of your steps when you work math problems. When you watch my videos, you will notice that I rarely skip steps. I write every single step down. Why do I do this? Because it’s a crucial part of learning the subject. If too many leaps are made too quickly, many students will not be able to follow what is being done. And as you work the math yourself, if you skip steps, you are likely to make mistakes. Mistakes are a part of learning mathematics. They happen. But when you make mistakes that could have been prevented by showing your work, then it can affect your confidence. That can lead to a downward spiral. So, I encourage you to show your steps. It’s why I’m diligent to do so in all of my videos.
There is absolutely no way around this aspect of success in math. You simply have to work problems. There is no other way to learn the subject other than to participate in it. The more problems you work, the more you will understand the given concept you are working on. It is also really important to do math every day. If you work on it one or two days a week, you will forget much of what you are learning. For most people it will take consistent, everyday practice to be successful in learning mathematics.
Be willing to make mistakes
Over the years, I’ve observed a pattern with many of my students. I’ve observed that some of them are unwilling to start a problem because they are afraid of making a mistake. It’s like a certain level of paralysis sets in if they feel they aren’t 100% confident in how to work the problem. You have to make mistakes in order to learn mathematics! There’s no way around it. Get yourself some pencils and a big eraser and set a goal to have to buy a new eraser by the end of the class.
Study the directions
It is really important to study the directions on the problems you are working with. On any given test, you are going to see a variety of different directions and you have to be able to remember which directions correspond to which problems. I found studying the directions along with the math to be very helpful when I was learning the math myself, and it has also been helpful for many of my students as they learn the subject.
Implementing some or all of the suggestions above can help improve your performance in math, and hopefully allow the process to become something enjoyable if it isn’t already.