I write this article as someone that has struggled with math quite a bit in my life. Recently, this is a wound of mine that I’ve been fixing up. While in most of my classes through college, I was pulling in regular easy A’s (using similar methods to those discussed on this blog,) early in college I really had to struggle to get a B in my math courses. I knew plenty of hacks for most classes but I didn’t know how to get better at math.
Math is a dramatically different subject than virtually every other subject. Math is precise. In English, History, and even Science, with a little creativity, you can fudge almost right into being right (at least with most teachers.) More importantly, math can’t be dominated through plain old memorization. You can’t just memorize a few equations and expect math to be an easy grade (at first.)
Math is a class where you don’t talk, you do. You need to have the knowledge to handle problems when they come up. Oftentimes, you need to interpret words and put them into mathematical forms. Ultimately, there is a clear reason why students often say, “I’m not good at math,” or “I love math.” It’s a subject that’s dramatically different than most of what students do. Getting better at math requires a different set of strategies.
When it comes to dominating math class, there are a few things that you can do to make every class easier and easier.
The headline should say it all. You absolutely need to keep up in math class. Learning algebra two without a strong understanding of algebra one is like trying to build the second floor of a building without finishing the first floor’s structure. Sure, it may look pretty but it’s eventually going to fall down. You can’t get better at math if you’re not where you’re supposed to be to begin with.
There is an old cliched concept that’s usually pretty far from the truth but with math class, it’s absolutely right. Everything you learn in the foundation to everything you will learn. You cannot move on if you don’t correct the foundation. If you know most of the stuff for the foundation but not all of it, you’re just going to have to build around that hole of information (or go back and relearn it.)
The reason most students struggle with math is because they’ve failed to keep up. They have gaping holes in their knowledge that they always end up falling through eventually.
You might recognize it through every math class being easy for a few months before you hit one subject that your teacher glazes over and you struggle to understand. Your teacher acts like it’s the easiest thing in the world while you get completely lost. That is likely a hole in your knowledge.
So, let’s say you’ve fell behind in math class. Let’s say you’ve fallen so far behind that you struggle through every class. That’s the position I was in. What’s the solution?
Work yourself out of it. Learn what you need to learn. You can do that by going straight through books on previous math concepts yourself or you can hire a professional to help you find your holes of knowledge and fill them in. On the positive side, if you’ve built a solid knowledge in some areas of math, it’s usually less hard to go back and correct holes. (I’d argue it’s significantly easier to learn outside of math class than inside of math class too.)
Catch up with what you don’t know. Suddenly, everything in math class becomes progressively easier.
The Definition Game
I’m going to tell you a little secret. Well… not really a secret. It’s just a little something that most people don’t appreciate. Math is logical. To get better at math, learn to understand that logic.
What? That doesn’t interest you? Who cares, you ask?
Well… Think about it this way. In most classes, if you don’t know certain information (or close to know it) then you’re screwed. If someone is asking for the year George Washington flew the Apollo missions and you don’t know the date then you’re screwed (Yes… That was, in fact, a joke… The fact that I had to explain it proves it was a bad joke.)
In math class, you can solve problems even if you don’t completely understand them. Sometimes, you can use a logical method to solve a problem you can’t solve “correctly.” For example, a test may ask, “what shape does the following equation make?” There are ways to tell what shape an equation makes by looking at it. But even if you don’t know that, you can always just insert numbers into the equation and plot it out. That will also give you the answer.(This isn’t an ideal example. It’s actually a rather simple one but I figure it’s simple enough for most people to understand.)
To do this you need to have a strong understanding of the definition of the terms. You need to know what the teacher wants when you see the word evaluate or simplify. It helps to know every definition that you can learn related to the subject. These definitions are the language of math. When you understand the language of math you can use logic significantly more effectively. That helps you get better at math in an indirect but meaningful way.
Sometimes I imagine if I was a mathematician living in the woods I’d go by the name, Henry David Thorough. (Yea… That’s just another bad joke…)
With math class, you should be writing everything down. Yes. It’s painful. Yes. It’s boring. Yes. I know you’re probably not going to listen to me in the long run but let me make my case.
Stupid mistakes can be prevented by writing everything you’re working with down. I know it’s easier to do the simple math in your head. If you have a good record in math then perhaps you don’t need to write everything down but if you struggle at all, write it all down. By writing the simple things down you allow yourself more time to solve the actual problem. You don’t get better at math but many students are already good enough at math; they just aren’t careful enough.
You have more time to catch mistakes. You have more time to go in the right direction. You have less room for stupid mistakes. You also memorize the process even better. This is speculation but I’m willing to bet 1 in 5 math screwups are preventable through excessive writing. Do what you can to prevent those screwups.
If you catch up and keep up in math, focus on learning the definitions, and spend plenty of time writing everything down in math class then expect to dominate. It’s not an easy process to catch back up but once you’re there you’ll find that math class is constantly teaching you less and less difficult things (short of a few hard moments.)
When they discuss early math as a foundation, think about it more like a pyramid. Once you know algebra you can do millions of cool things. Once you learn algebra two you can do millions more cool things but not quite as much as how helpful algebra was. Once you learn Precal you can do even more cool things but you’re constantly having less and less potential uses for the information you’re learning. In reality, this probably isn’t completely true but when it comes to daily life for 99% of the population, algebra is miles more useful than calculus. (It gets complicated in individual cases.)
Do you want to know how to dominate all your classes in less than 15 minutes a night? That’s what this blog is all about. Check out the archives and follow along. Also, if you want to master school then be sure to check out the ebooks in the sidebar on the top of this blog.
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