How to ace every math class I ever take
December 17, 2010 5:13 PM   Subscribe

I just failed my math class (a finance class). I'm smart at math but I don't handle organization well for math-related classes. How can I handle them classes better?

I've been taking care of some depression during the last year or so, when I found out I had it, and it's been helping all my schoolwork tremendously. I have no problems with reading and studying facts, history, ideas, literature, art, etc.

I definitely know I have the intellectual wherewithal to handle math and all the above-listed things, but I do not have the organizational habits to be able to handle math classes well enough, apparently.

I'm not entering a field that really requires math classes, but I would just like to know I'd be able to handle the couple that I do want to take.

Any advice from somebody who's been in my situation (any aspect of it) or ideas in general would be much appreciated!
posted by dubadubowbow to Education (17 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
For me math is a matter of practice, meaning, doing dozens of practice problems on every section.

Everyone learns differently of course.

I'm assuming you're in college. Perhaps your college has an academic help center or a tutor center or something similar.

The other thing to realize is that many college-level math courses are geared, for better or worse, toward people who just get math. That means they tend to cover a large amount of material in a very quick period of time and it may not be taught very well.
posted by dfriedman at 5:19 PM on December 17, 2010

Math is two pronged, unlike a lot of other subjects. And there will be misery if you don't "get" either one.

1- Understanding the problem that needs to be solved.

2- Memorizing the formula(s) necessary.

So, for finance, they might ask "what is the APY for a loan with an APR of 4.5%" You need to know what the difference between APR and APY is, and then you need to know how to figure them out.

I've found that with math and math-like subjects, a lack of understanding can go back years. If you are missing one tiny building block of the theory, it can sometimes be very hard to understand anything that builds on it. Also, learning and teaching styles can make a big difference.

Why do you believe lack of organization is the cause of your troubles?
posted by gjc at 5:31 PM on December 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: By organization, I mean more broadly than just organizing my notes or organizing my homework: how to organize what I need to study, how to measure how well I know things, and how to know. Stuff like that. Kind of approaching it from all sides to make sure I understand everything, have the equations and procedures down, and know when to use them. Sometimes I do well thinking I'm unprepared, and sometimes I do poorly thinking I am well prepared.

Thanks for your answers so far!
posted by dubadubowbow at 6:07 PM on December 17, 2010

Assuming you're in college (and sometimes even in high school) your textbook should have the answers in the back. Sometimes it is only the even or odd questions, but that doesn't matter. For every chapter you need to know, do at least twice as much as is assigned for homework, if you get homework. Even after you grasp the material, you still need to know how to manipulate it.
posted by griphus at 6:09 PM on December 17, 2010

A useful technique that's worked for me and some students I've tutored:

Carve out a couple hours a week for reviewing material but not working on assignments. Go over examples done in class and examples from the textbook. I've found there's a real difference to how information sticks when you're just working on something to understand it, compared to how you work when you're trying to get an assignment done or cram for a test.

Treat is as a "warm-up" to the assignment you're going to work on later in week (or whatever).

(This may be a brutally obvious technique to you, but it took me a long time to figure it out and I became much more efficient once I started doing it).
posted by auto-correct at 6:13 PM on December 17, 2010

School libraries usually carry multiple textbooks for just about every class. So for your particular math class, find the previous edition textbook, or a text from a different publisher, find the section(s) that you're working on, and do all of those problems, then check your answers in the back of the book.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 6:18 PM on December 17, 2010

Also, the textbook is your friend. A lot of people seem to rely on lecture notes to teach them what they need to know, which I don't think is good. Use the lecture notes as a guide to what general topics the prof wants you to know, then go to the text to actually learn it. At least that's what's worked for me.
posted by auto-correct at 6:20 PM on December 17, 2010

I recommend writing out every step you take toward solving the problem, no matter how trivial. This should help you organize your train of thought, and it will also increase your likelihood of getting (more) partial credit on exams.
posted by TheCavorter at 6:21 PM on December 17, 2010

"Kind of approaching it from all sides to make sure I understand everything, have the equations and procedures down, and know when to use them."

Like you I'm pretty intelligent and didn't have much trouble in school except for math. I had really hard time with math from 1st grade to 8th grade, until I finally got a tutor. Having someone to work with one on one made an incredible, amazing difference. My problem was I would think I understood the procedure, but somehow I would try to use logic to get from one step to the next, but then would go down the wrong path and get stuck because it wasn't originally explained in a way that made sense for me. Having someone watch me do the problem and then tell me where I was going wrong and why was the only way to get past that. The tutor will also help you in measuring how well you know stuff, so it's not a surprise on test day.

I don't know if that's your specific problem, but for the objectives you outlined in your update, I can tell you that this made a big difference for me. Your school probably offers tutors, and it will probably help to make good use of your instructor's office hours. That also was a big help for me.
posted by amethysts at 6:23 PM on December 17, 2010

I find using YouTube videos of professors going over the same type of problem (like, five or ten or fifteen different professors for the same concept) helps a lot. Khan Academy is always good; he has videos for every kind of math, economics, and finance subject I have ever taken. I also use several different books - a For Dummies book, a book on a community college syllabus, a book on an MIT OCW syllabus, and whatever is highest ranked on Amazon or LibraryThing. I try to do a ton of problems from each.

They say to spend three hours per week for every credit hour you're taking; if you exclude homework time, that's about right for me.
posted by SMPA at 6:58 PM on December 17, 2010

I have a math degree, but I'm not knock-em-dead brilliant at math. I think I did it mainly by persistence. This is what worked for me...

Nthing doing crap loads of the practice problems. For particularly nasty chapters, I would do every problem for which there was an answer in the back of the book. Verifying the answer is important, since you don't want to learn how to do something the wrong way.

Further, if you're reviewing for an exam, try to organize the practice questions in such a way that you're not entirely certain which part of the book they're coming from.

Sometimes it's easy to solve a problem if you know it's in a certain chapter -- you know the general algorithm from that chapter, so instead of knowing how to solve the problem, you just know to apply algorithm C or whatnot. Instead, try to make sure it's not clear which problem is from which chapter, so you have to reason out what strategy to use, just as you would on an exam.

Many math departments have former exams posted online. Find these and do as many of them as you can stomach, they are the best practice you will be able to get for the real thing.

Don't be afraid to ask questions and go to office hours if you are particularly stumped. Toiling away at a problem that you don't understand can end up being an inefficient use of your time. Go to office hours or to a "math lab" or whatnot if your school has one.

If there's a companion guide, buy it. They often have better explanations of certain problems worked (much more than is available in the back of the book). If your textbook doesn't explain something in a way you can understand, try to see if there's a textbook that -can- available in the library. Sometimes seeing another explanation will help finally make something comprehensible. Sometimes there are typos in your textbook which make understanding the math in it impossible. (Typos in a math text can be really bad/confusing!)

But as others have said, definitely practice. Math isn't really one of those things that you can just read up on for a few hours and then BS your way through a final.

You need a solid foundation for math. So if you find that your skill in some more remedial area is lacking, you may have to go back to address that problem before you can move forward. C'est la vie mathematique.
posted by ZeroDivides at 7:06 PM on December 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Do every single problem in the textbook (the ones with solutions), and any other practice problems you can get copies of. (As people have suggested, other textbooks will have lots of practice problems. Many professors give out sample exams, too.)

If you get a problem wrong, try to work out how they got the right answer. After you have failed at that, then see the professor.

Read the relevant chapter before class, then again after class. Set yourself up to do half an hour of work every day.

Show and explain as much as you can. If you have an answer that is insane (a negative probability, your stock going from 50 cents to a hundred million dollars), and you run out of time to fix it in an exam, write next to the answer that you know this answer is not reasonable.

Honestly, if you just solve correctly all the sample problems, everything else will most likely take care of itself -- skip anything else, but do sample questions.
posted by jeather at 8:24 PM on December 17, 2010

When I took statistics a couple years ago, it was pretty much my part-time job on top of my full-time career. I did about four hours of homework a night. I used previously-learned equation-typesetting ninja skills to type out my homework because doing it longhand would've crushed me utterly. It's the rote repetition of the problem sets that drives the work home.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 9:31 PM on December 17, 2010

nth-ing the suggestion to do as many problems as possible.

My approach to maths courses depended a lot on the quality of the lecturer, if they were poor at explaining, I found a textbook I could follow, and just used the lecture notes as a guide to which topics, methods and proofs we were covering. I also asked other people on the course for help a lot - particularly if certain questions have a knack to them. If the lecturer or the TA are any good, then of course use office hours and problem sessions.

My general, always used technique though was to copy out my lecture notes by hand in full. I did this shortly after the lecture, whilst the material was still in my mind. I could add in as many extra steps, explanations, diagrams and mnemonics as I needed. It reinforced my learning, and showed where I didn't really understand things, so I could get help. Then before final exams, I would annotate and highlight the notes.

Other tricks I used:
  • working problems with the notes, and then without.
  • creating flow sheets / outlines for algorithms or proofs.
  • memorising definitions using flash cards.
Finally, do not get behind. Maths is a linear subject and generally each topic in a course follows on from all the previous ones. Missing a fundamental concept at the beginning causes no end of problems.
posted by plonkee at 5:10 AM on December 18, 2010

Just as an anecdotal point, I'm not sure that finance=math...I'm very good at math but had a terrible time with finance in grad school.
posted by radioamy at 6:10 AM on December 18, 2010

* Office hours are your friend. You get a clearer idea of what the prof thinks is most important, and it can often turn into previews of future material. For me, answering questions for students in office hours has sometimes translated directly into future class material, by giving me a clear idea of what the students need most to work on. The ones who come to office hours thus often end up with a question directed exactly to that thing we talked about one-on-one, which gives them something of an advantage at test time.

* Routine is also your friend. Get in the habit of doing a problem or six every day, instead of letting things go to the last minute. Read the course notes and/or textbook. Interface with the material every single day. Math involves a lot of alien concepts, and familiarity breeds confidence breeds understanding.
posted by kaibutsu at 12:55 PM on December 19, 2010

As radioamy says, finance is different than math. In my business curriculum, it was definitely considered the toughest class, followed by statistics. It's not that the calculations are so difficult, but that you need to apply a fair bit of logical thinking to figure out what calculations you need to do with the information in front of you. Practice (you've gotten great recommendations about that) and seeking out more/different ways to have the information explained to you (web videos, and for specific questions, your professor's office hours) are the best ways to get better at that logical thinking.
posted by jocelmeow at 4:54 PM on December 20, 2010

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