Mr. Math Monster, I presume?
March 24, 2012 4:33 AM   Subscribe

Help me to learn math as an adult when I still despise the frustrating beast from my childhood!

Since I was a kid, I’ve always struggled with math. I was apparently very good at it when I was a little girl, grasping concepts that hadn’t been taught to me yet, but somewhere in there I determined I hated math. Or that it was too hard. I even drew up a manifestation of my fear, the Math Monster. With 7’s for spines, 6’s for claws, 5’s for teeth, and extra numbers floating about in its half gelatinous, half dragon form, the creature is STILL what I think of when I even halfway glimpse an equation with x = ?.

Now, several years and maybe 2 to 3 college level Algebra classes later, I’m an adult who’s realized that math is actually useful. And pretty much a requirement for life. Especially when my “maybe I could…” interests show me possible life paths involving chemistry, physics, quadratic equations, and theoretical computer science.

Look, I know I’m smart, but I just need things explained to me in a way I can visualize. I’ve grasped many algebraic concepts before, but I find it difficult to remember even a few months later how to, let’s say for example, find the percentage for a restaurant tip.

Basically, I’m trying to get back into the math groove, and I’m looking for recommendations on textbooks that are neither dull as shit nor pandering like a kid’s picture book. I just want math to be interesting to me. These textbooks should also obviously be as accurate as possible, since I wouldn’t know an error even if it threw me a wet t-shirt party.

I note, btw, that I never was able to memorize my multiplication tables and have therefore become a near advanced level wizard at finger tapping to half sing-song tricks such as “5 x 5 = 25, 5 x 6 = THIR-ty” and “9 x 9 = the 49er’s” which flit by so fast now, I barely notice them anymore.
Also of possible importance: if geometry were the only mathematical subject of importance, I’d have _that_ beast paraded around on a leash, wearing a tag that says “Snuffles”.

SO! More or less I want to review math starting from Algebra, reviewing Geometry, and onward. Can you help?
posted by DisreputableDog to Education (20 answers total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
I do -not-, btw, have the time or money or definitive future locale for a tutor of any type, even via the computer. I'm active duty military, making anything I want to schedule personally tentatively planned a few weeks out and confirmed a few days beforehand. Trust me.
posted by DisreputableDog at 4:42 AM on March 24, 2012

Khan Academy videos are a tremendously helpful supplement to textbooks. I started watching the videos on there and things just...clicked. Also, it's free!
posted by littlesq at 4:55 AM on March 24, 2012 [14 favorites]

I would recommend Larry Gonick's "Cartoon Guide To..." series, but sadly he's only yet covered Calculus and Statistics (also Physics, Chemistry, Computers, Genetics, and History).

Back in the day, I subscribed to Discover Magazine specifically for Gonick's illustrations.
posted by RonButNotStupid at 5:26 AM on March 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Street Fighting Mathematics
posted by sammyo at 5:33 AM on March 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's a bit foofy, but Math Doesn't Suck by Danica McKellar (actress from "The Golden Years," and certified genius) breaks down mathematical concepts really well. If you can get past all the curlicues and silliness, it does help to take the scariness out of math.
posted by xingcat at 5:36 AM on March 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Not a textbook, and not a course, but you might enjoy Steven Strogatz's Elements of Math series.
posted by robcorr at 5:58 AM on March 24, 2012

Big second for the Kahn's beyond amazing, for all subjects.
posted by pearlybob at 6:28 AM on March 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

2nding Khan Academy. Also - Danica McKellar was Winnie on The Wonder Years. She's about 50 years too young to have starred on The Golden Years.
posted by COD at 6:29 AM on March 24, 2012

GAH! I am turning into my own grandfather, with the name changes. The Wonder Years, yes. Now have a Werther's Original and get off my lawn. Here's a nickel.
posted by xingcat at 6:37 AM on March 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

Was just coming in to also recommend Khan Academy. The videos are good and you can rewind and rewatch anything that you get stuck on. There are lots of examples that he solves with you and then problems for you to practice. Covers all math subjects Pre-Algebra through college. Good luck!
posted by garnetgirl at 6:42 AM on March 24, 2012

Something to keep reminding yourself is that there is math and there is arithmetic. They are not the same, except in school where they beat you over the head with the later and then tell you that you are bad at the former. Your comment about Geometry suggests that you can handle math but have beaten over the head with arithmetic. Consider the fact that Isaac Newton apparently didn't completely trust calculus and would always try to do geometric proofs of the things that no one in their right mind would try today.

Here's a page on "Geometric Algebra" that might help you visualize things better or at least give you a feel that, if you can handle geometry (which scads of people fear and loathe) this might help you see that the rest of this stuff is really just snuffles casting a big scary shadow (with a lot of decimal places) on the wall of a half dark room. When precision really matters in the physical world, geometry beats numbers most every time.

Also, finding a restaurant tip is much more like arithmetic. If it makes you feel better I used to go out to lunch with a group of people that included like 15 scientists, at least six of which had PhD's and I was the only one brave enough to try and figure out a tip in their head rather than on their phone. (Hint: Multiply by 0.15 in my head? No way in hell. I divided by ten (easy) and then by two (still pretty easy) and then added the results of step one and step two together.)
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 7:26 AM on March 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

When I went back to college, I needed to brush up on all the crap I had forgotten since high school.

I found an instructors copy of an algebra textbook and the answer key at a used book store. Then it was practice practice practice. I found a few mistakes in the answer key, too. Workbooks like this would do as well.

The main thing is that math is like pretty much all other skills - you can only get better at it by doing it. Videos and tutors are nice, but at the end of the day, actually doing math problems is how you get better at solving math problems.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 7:44 AM on March 24, 2012 [3 favorites]

Just to be more specific on Khan Academy here, it is paramount to be spending time solving problems and not just watching videos! At any level of math this is true. Watching videos or reading a book can convince you that you understand something when you aren't actually able to put it in motion.

So check out their exercise dashboard which starts out nice and simple and escalates at a reasonable pace. What it does that's even more important is give you a nice set of goals and achievements along with a path to those goals that you can do in small manageable chunks. This is so important for achieving any goal and helps it from becoming overwhelming, and lets be honest goals like this take reasonable time and effort. I'd recommend doing the exercises to the point you start having trouble and then working along with the videos and exercises in tandem. It honestly amazes me that such a good learning system exists out there right now. Get in the habit of solving n exercises a day and you'll be making progress in no time, I promise you.

A side point, you say that you've taken 2 to 3 college level algebra courses, and to me this implies a knowledge around say multi-linear algebra and galois theory- which I don't think fits in the spirit of the rest of your post. Do you think you could be more specific in what exactly you're trying to learn and how far you are along in that goal? Say, are you trying to get a working knowledge of elementary calculus or linear algebra?
posted by Algebra at 7:47 AM on March 24, 2012 [4 favorites]

I spent a summer tutoring a woman working on her GED about a decade back. My biggest obstacle was helping her to see that she already knew a lot of what she had to learn, she just didn't know that she knew it. For example, fractions and decimals "were impossible," especially converting between them. Eventually, I got her to see that she did this all the time, when she dealt with money. Switching between the concept of "a quarter" and $.25 was second nature, and she really didn't have any problem calculating the rough value of a quarter tank of gas and so on. In my experience, most people have a lot of math concepts lodged in their heads, but not clearly assembled into the idea of "I know math." So studying it as an adult (especially if you get to see some of the fun parts) is more like returning to an old neighborhood and discovering that you are now way bigger than the local bullies than going off into the dangerous wilds for more punishment.
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:47 AM on March 24, 2012 [6 favorites]

Vi Hart, Mathemusician
for example, her Binary Hand Dance
posted by at at 3:20 PM on March 24, 2012

I haven't bought Kalid Azad's ebook, but his blog posts on math are helpful. I've also heard really good things about the Art of Problem Solving Books and Life of Fred Books. Both of those series are "for kids," but do explain "the why."

You might also enjoy books by Ian Stewart.
posted by oceano at 5:57 PM on March 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

I mean that I took Algebra I about 2 (?) times, and Algebra II once (but didn't do that well due to other circumstances). I remember that the Algebra II class had the problem of "The Seven Bridges of Konigsberg", which I enjoyed very much at the time.

I guess my post is about how I don't even know my basic multiplication tables. How I forget simple things I multiply within the parentheses first or...? and yet I've very nearly moved on in life to the point where my job would possibly encourage me to take some sort of advanced math. And that's making me a leetle nervous, frankly.

Geometry wise, I've never really had an issue, especially with cubed images. I find it easy to suddenly have a cube in my head with, for example, one side being red and one side with a shared edge being blue. Then I can manipulate it like I'm wearing some sort of....Blender 3D image gloves or something. Add to or replace the colors with the values you wish to assign and....*shrugs* Sometimes I have to make a physical cube out of paper, but at least I can manipulate it with my hands, you see?
posted by DisreputableDog at 12:18 AM on March 25, 2012

Don't get caught up in arithmetic; it's important, sure, but I've always thought that arithmetic is to math as spelling is to writing. Understanding algebra and trig is far more important than to be able to immediately tell someone what 13*18 is. I have a degree in math and I still skip count for a lot of multiplication tables, and I suck at arithmetic. I hated arithmetic as a kid. Haaaated. And I still hate it when people assume good at math = savant-like mental calculator... But math is a whole different beast!

I guess my point is don't let an aversion to arithmetic turn you off of math. Math is a lot more about solving problems and logical stuff.

The other thing is just to practice your pants off. I honestly would have a hard time doing some of the math that came easily to me a few years ago -- but I don't sweat it because I know I could figure out the answer pretty easily, since I already at least knew how to do the thing once. I keep all my old math textbooks and if I come across something I need to do but forgot how to do, I just dust off the tome and do a few practice exercises.

It's helpful to know some of the mnemonics like PEMDAS but once you get the hang of algebra the math world is your oyster, imo. And my high school geometry class, was, I think, the closest high school class to "actual math" for whatever that's worth to you.

If you're interested in a book that will give you a taste of some of the cool stuff math has to offer, but isn't a textbook per se, then I'd recommend Flatterland by Ian Stewart. It covers stuff like non-euclidian geometry, topology, fractals and all kinds of stuff. It's a lot like the Phantom Tollbooth, but for crazy math and aimed at an older audience. It's not the kind of math you'd need for typical jobs, but it shows that there's a lot more to math than arithmetic, at least. It's delightful and I still re-read it from time to time for fun.
posted by Arethusa at 2:10 AM on March 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think I understand your pain with math. I had to interpret algebra into concepts I knew. For me, algebra was social groupings : everyone inside the (group) did things together, then the outside force acted upon them, then sometimes another outside force acted.... Geometry was similarly to your description something which I could visually manipulate. I still have difficulty with arithmetic since numbers are a very foreign language.

I think rote repetition is a good approach since I've found no way of interpreting arithmetic/numbers.
posted by mightshould at 6:49 PM on March 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

I had to relearn maths and still am after switching careers into engineering. I find that I learn maths based on the problems I need to solve. Things I did:

Tutor, I know you said that's difficult but even a friend or acquaintance whose got time & willing might be good, I absolutely couldn't understand many concepts in my first semester without someone explaining it. I first saw my tutor s3-4 times a week then once per month. Now, hardly ever.

Enrol in a short refresher course, maybe online? assuming you can make some time to study then the harder the course the better.

Textbooks: visit your local uni / schoolbookstore for maths textbooks and pick one or two for explanation/ example / general reading.

Awesome calculator

posted by Under the Sea at 7:48 AM on April 1, 2012

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