Calculus after being away from algebra for some time. Help me.
March 24, 2014 11:51 AM   Subscribe

I am going to grad school in the fall. Hooray! Problem: I have to take calculus before I start and I am kind of freaking out.

Everything is great about the grad program I've decided to attend. The only problem is that I found out with my admission that they want me to have calculus before I start. I haven't had calculus. It was news to me that I needed to do it before starting (non-math intensive field), but attending a different program that doesn't require it is not really a good option at this point, as this program is far and away the best financial option I have.

They said I can take any sort of calculus I want and that it can be at a university, community college, or online. I have opted to take a course called "Calculus for Business, Management, Social and Life Science" at my local community college. It starts in one week.

I had trig and pre-calc in high school, but other than that I have been away from higher level algebra for kind of a long time. I took stats recently with no problems and I also took Trig-Based General Physics last fall without too many problems. I also took the GRE last summer which required me to basically re-learn high school level algebra and geometry and did well.

I am more or less good at math, but I am really, really worried about my algebra not being up to snuff and failing miserably. I feel more or less comfortable working with basic trig, quadratic equations, basic algebraic operations. I have to go/no-go to all my grad programs by April 15th, so I'm concerned that I will accept the offer, turn down the others, and then fail calculus and totally screw myself.

I spoke with the professor about my situation. He scared me with how difficult this was going to be. He also said there are some others in the class in a similar situation to mine. I also have people close to me who are engineers/math students who I can enlist to help me a bit. I don't need to excel in the course, but I do need to pass.

-How screwed am I?
-Are there any strategies that can help me best succeed in this situation? Resources? Things I'm not thinking of?
-I am willing to dedicate as much time as it takes really to make this work. What should I be preparing for/reviewing?
-Any other advice?

Thanks everyone.
posted by The Pantless Wonder to Education (24 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I think it's likely you're underestimating your skills, but resource-wise, go to Khan Academy, start at a level you're unsure of, and start cranking through it. It will help you figure out where you actually are and what you need to brush up on.
posted by brainmouse at 11:54 AM on March 24, 2014 [7 favorites]

You will be fine. You have a decent math background and you're not taking an engineering focused course, plus you have good resources. You will not be screwed. I know this because I also took calc many, many years after having had any math, and did just fine.

Here's what you need to do (in my opinion):

1. Get the text book and start reading it. Don't worry if you don't understand all or even any of it. Just reading through it will warm your brain up, familiarize you with some of the terms, and make it easier to follow along in class. All through the quarter, read ahead, so that when the prof discusses something in class, it's not totally new to you. You'll have seen the equations, read the terms, seen the big-picture question you're supposed to be solving for. Don't worry if reading it doesn't teach you the material; just prime your brain to learn it from the prof.

If you can start working on some of the early problems now, do that. If you find that it assumes you're familiar with areas of math that you just don't remember how to do, go to the Khan Academy and review these. I had never taken trig, and was totally freaked by these sections, and had I had Khan available to me, I would have been fine. You'll be fine.

2. Sit in the front row, and take notes on paper in pencil. Pay attention. Ask questions. Avoid people with laptops who surf the web, or text all through class.

3. Find someone else in the class that seems to grasp what is going on, and ask to study with them. Someone who is also struggling is not the right person to ask. Why would someone totally getting it be willing to study with you? Because explaining something to someone is a great way to learn the material; remind them of this if they raise this issue.

4. Do the homework the same evening that the material was covered in class, or first thing the next morning (depending on whether you're a night or morning person). Do it when it's fresh. Then come back two days later and go over everything you've done, to see if it's right.

5. Celebrate your achievements. Know you're awesome. Congrats on getting into grad school!!
posted by Capri at 12:01 PM on March 24, 2014 [5 favorites]

brainmouse and Capri have good tips, but I'll just focus on the first question:

You're not screwed at all. First, calculus at a non-science-grad-school level is pretty easy. Second, when the professor said there are others in your same situation? That was a good thing, because it means that A) you'll have people at your level to lean on/assist, and B) they won't throw you out if you can't solve for the derivative of e^x on the first day. Last, don't be afraid to use your program's resources once you're enrolled; odds are that they're more interested in keeping you around than in gotcha-ing you because you don't have a strong calc background.
posted by Etrigan at 12:05 PM on March 24, 2014

My first thought reading your question was that you've got nothing to worry about. Two points:
1. You've been doing math recently, in the context of physics and stats; and it actually sounds like you basically like math, but that there's something about the mystique of "calculus" that has you nervous. There's really nothing so dramatically different about calculus; it's just new rules to follow, new symbols to recognize.
2. To continue with your choice of grad program, you just need to have passed the class, right? This isn't something that's going to go on your record, you don't need to have stellar grades and a recommendation from the professor. Commnity colleges especially tend to value effort and engagement. It's actually pretty hard to fail a class if you show up every time, and do the homework (in such a way that you understand how you did it). Don't let your perfectionism work against you.

Stay calm. Follow capri's excellent study suggestions. Everything will be fine.
posted by aimedwander at 12:14 PM on March 24, 2014 [3 favorites]

1.) You'll do fine

2.) If you can't manage this, you won't manage your PhD. Because this is so easy there will be 17 year old kids in your class.
posted by jjmoney at 12:14 PM on March 24, 2014

There is a wonderful little book called Calculus for Dummies. You can work through it pretty quickly and it will help you immensely. Like others have said, this course won't be nearly as hard as you seem to think it will be.
posted by txmon at 12:18 PM on March 24, 2014

You'd be surprised what you remember. I'm taking what's basically 8th grade math and usually just need a refresher on the concepts before I can plow through everything. At this point I'm about a month ahead of the class with a 104 average and could probably just not take the last two tests and still pass. ANd the irony is I always thought of myself as bad at math. I think I got a C in actual 8th grade math.

See if your local CC has some kind of non-credit or pass/fail "getting back up to speed with algebra for grownups just going back to school now"-type course that'd give you a refresher.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 12:20 PM on March 24, 2014

When you start to worry about stuff like this, work harder. Get the textbook now and devote at least an hour a day to it and you'll feel much better. No one is born good at calculus. Some people learn faster, probably faster than you. That just means you need to work harder. Nowadays the internet makes it even more fruitful.
posted by the young rope-rider at 12:20 PM on March 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm currently tutoring a student in a similar course, and from your background, it sounds like you are going to be just fine as long as you put in the work and get help whenever you find yourself stuck.
posted by ktkt at 12:25 PM on March 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

All sorts of non-math-y people take, and pass, Calculus. Clear enough time to study a lot. Look for a tutor or study group in case you need extra help. Pre-reading the book is a great idea. Also, Pre-calc
posted by theora55 at 12:29 PM on March 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'd just get a book like "Forgotten Algebra" or "The Humongous Book of Algebra Problems" and work through it, for review.
posted by thelonius at 12:39 PM on March 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

There is no passive way to learn calculus. Hard work is the only way. Get your pencil out and start solving problems. It is not hard, but it ain't easy. Anyone who is willing to work hard and suffer a bit can learn it.
posted by three blind mice at 12:49 PM on March 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

A lot of the answers above are good, but let me add one more thing. I've taught calculus for many years, so I can say with confidence that unless you end up having a nonstandard class (not likely), you do not have to know everything from precalc for a standard calc I class. Mostly you just need to remember the basics of algebra (equations, graphs) and trig functions. Actually, I think that calc I is a lot easier than precalculus, because there's a much clearer geometric intuition, and the problems aren't as messy. And if you do need to use some algebraic stuff that you don't remember well, you can always talk to your teacher about it. They'll be happy to discuss background material with you.
posted by Frobenius Twist at 12:51 PM on March 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

You're not going to fail - or rather, if you fail, it's probably not going to be because your algebra is rusty.

I was in the same boat as you. I took calculus long enough after I had taken algebra that I remembered what "factoring" was, but not really how to do it. In calculus, you don't need to be able to use those skills in order to understand the concepts. You will need some of them to solve problems, but from my personal experience, it's fairly easy to review as things come up. Judging by your performance in previous math-y classes, you'll be fine.

I feel more or less comfortable working with basic trig, quadratic equations, basic algebraic operations

I mean, you are in much better shape than I was! And I passed calculus with a high enough grade that I went on to major in math...

Khan Academy is a good way to review - it's audiovisual, you can see the problems worked through, and it's relatively quick. But seriously, I think you are vastly overestimating how much mastery of algebra you're going to need going in. I don't know why your professor scared you, unless his class is harder than normal. It may be because in a class aimed at non-math-y people, he has had the experience of many of his students simply not being good at math. Such classes are often taken as the easier option, so there may be some selection bias there.

Review, but don't freak.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 12:52 PM on March 24, 2014

You'll be fine. Brush up on all basic algebra skills, as this is actually what I've truly seen hinder people in calc. Your algebra should be at a level where you feel confident most of the time and aren't too embarrassed to ask for help when you don't. Calculus class is mostly about memorization and application of rules. Just solve lots of problems. You won't really be expected to think too critically--just expose yourself to enough material that you've 'seen it all before' when the test comes. :) Spend time in the tutoring center, perhaps to the point of doing all of your homework in there--that's what will really help you more than anything else. You GOT this.
posted by semaphore at 12:52 PM on March 24, 2014

Response by poster: I'd be lying if I said I didn't feel more calm thanks to your reassurance. I really, really appreciate it. Thank you so much for your advice and encouragement everyone.
posted by The Pantless Wonder at 1:17 PM on March 24, 2014

It sounds like you'r going to be fine. As another step in preparation, why don't you familiarize yourself with any help/tutoring resources the school has? Maybe even get the names of some private tutors in case you find yourself stuck and need more help?
posted by radioamy at 1:25 PM on March 24, 2014

You'll be fine. At the level you're taking calculus, they'll be doing the basics, which means

1) What's the slope of the line at this point on a function?
2) What's the area under the line of this function?

Seriously, that's all they will basically cover. This roughly translates to rate of change and total change.

"Serious" (engineering/math/physics) calculus is much more complex but the basics above are probably all you'll need to learn.
posted by chairface at 2:16 PM on March 24, 2014

My local community college has a math help desk. You should check to see if your college has something similar.
posted by rakaidan at 4:55 PM on March 24, 2014

I've taught some variation on that class a few times. It's rare for people to fail solely due to a lack of math skills. You won't get an A if you're terrible at algebra, but you will generally pass if you make an effort.

You need to know how to work with fractions (add, multiple, subtract, divide and for the love of god, don't turn everything into a decimal) and exponents/roots, both without a calculator. Re-memorizing the quadratic formula if you've forgotten it again is a good idea, as is spending half an hour practicing factoring polynomials. (Oh, look, those are things you said you were 'more or less comfortable' with!) If you have the textbook already, it probably has an algebra review chapter that is fairly representative of what you need to know.
posted by hoyland at 6:16 PM on March 24, 2014

When you start a class, bond with some classmates and form a study group.

My study group and I helped each other immensely with our Trig class, and we wouldn't be doing nearly as well as we are doing without it.

Study groups - not just a plot device in an NBC sitcom.

Also - and this may seem like a no-brainer - make sure your graphing calculator works. It'd be worth it to replace all the batteries in it, including the internal one. A study group member, who was otherwise doing well, got a 15% on her Midterm, because her calculator was dying and calculated/graphed everything wrong.
posted by spinifex23 at 6:35 PM on March 24, 2014

I did this same thing after a 20 year break from my last math courses. A first-year calc class (and not even the math/science major one) is going to do a significant amount of hand-holding and re-teaching of (although at a higher speed) key concepts from lower level math classes.

Don't take a 3 year break between Calc I and Calc II though. Ask me how I know that.
posted by ctmf at 7:16 PM on March 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

If the physics course you took was reasonably rigorous (and you did reasonably well), you're totally ready for calculus. Lots of people are scared of calculus, but I don't really understand why. It's the most intuitive, interesting math class I took in high school. It's the first math class I took where there was a narrative to the class as opposed to, "here is a hodgepodge of things to learn."

Not only will you be fine, but I predict you will have fun!
posted by Betelgeuse at 7:39 PM on March 24, 2014

One of my favorite instructors in college said, "Calculus is the course where people finally really understand how to do algebra. Integral calculus is where people finally really understand how to do derivatives. And differential equations is where people finally understand how to do integrals." You have enough self-awareness to know that you're on the first step of this ladder. You'll do great!
posted by fantabulous timewaster at 9:21 PM on March 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

« Older Relocating from SF to OC, looking for cool...   |   Group video conferencing from home Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.