Studying math is little different than studying a foreign language. If you equate multiplication and division tables to vocabulary words, algebra and trigonometry to the sentence construction, then calculus is writing paragraphs. Each genre of math builds upon the prior skills developed. The great news is that the time you invest on the foundation levels only serve to increase your math fluency faster.
Just like imitating a native speaker when learning a new language, with math you need to have examples to follow (text book, notes from class or online resources).
Wrong Way: After not having done academic math problems in 15 years, I found it incredibly frustrating that the guidance was, “study math.” Fine. How EXACTLY?!
In class I followed the instructor along as s/he explained every step while writing on the board and then glanced at my notes to “study.” On test day I choked. Of course I could not do the problems, I equated copying with comprehension. Copying problems did not mean I understood what was going on or how to replicate it.
Better way — Reps Method
After hijacking the methods used by top students in my class, the steps below improved my math fluency.
- Write down sample problems from class in your notes
- Work through homework problems assigned
- Pick out three or four representative problem types and re-work using notes for guidance
- Set aside for a period of time
- Either later that evening or the next morning re-work the same three or four problems and see if you can do it without assistance from your notes.
- Made it through? Good to go!
- Needed to check your notes again? Not a problem, but keep after it until you can work through the problems without assistance.
This method does not take as much time as you would think. Once you get the hang of it, you will start zipping through problems.
- Do not be afraid/embarrassed/intimidated to ask for help.
- If your instructor is not able to explain it in a way you understand, ask a fellow student, tutor, or another math instructor.
- Keep practicing. Arnold Schwarzenegger has the best attitude towards “reps” of anyone I’ve read. It did not matter if he was lifting or preparing to give a speech to the United Nations, he put in his time with reps. Clearly, it paid off!
Go for it and get your math reps done!