Your Guide To: Passing Your College Math Class

math, arithmetic, einstein, crazy cat

Oh-fuckin’-boy is this a topic.

College math classes are some of the most universally hated, and if you’re not careful they can trip up your entire life plan. If you’re going for anything STEMsy and can’t scrape through your math classes it’s like you can see your dreams literally slipping away from you.

But don’t freak out: it’s doable. (Sometimes mind numbingly boring, but achievable.) Here’s what you gotta do:
  • MAKE SURE YOU’RE IN THE RIGHT CLASS: This is a multi-part piece of advice and, in my opinion, the most important. First off, make sure you’re taking the right course. I know you need to take specific courses to graduate and you want to graduate in a timely fashion BUT: if you are not ready for a class but take it anyway you will only end up farther behind. Prerequisites are so, so important, and you need to make sure you are solid on them. If you feel like you need to retake a class or take a refresher course, DO IT!! There is absolutely no shame in taking a course to prep for [whatever class is giving you night terrors], and anyone who tries to tell you otherwise is not your friend and needs to get back in their lane.
    The second part to this advice is to make sure you are in the right learning environment. Depending on what your school is like, you’ll have to make decisions about class size, time of day, the professor, and honors/accelerated options. (You may not get to choose all of these, but consider them carefully when you have the option ) Google the hell out of your potential professors, get into the class that will give you personal attention if you want it, and for fuck’s sake, don’t take multivariate calculus at 8 am if you’re not a morning person.
    Last semester, when I was doing my weird semi-freshman-sorta-high-school year, I let my adviser talk me into the honors calculus sequence. It was a disaster and I ended up deciding to retake Calc II with a different professor because I knew I didn’t learn what I needed to to move on, despite passing with a C. Now I am thriving with a professor that assigns more homework and actually encourages questions from students. Just remember: you know what’s right for you, and don’t be afraid to enroll in the section you need because you’re worried about competing with your peers.
  • WORK DAILY: So I just mentioned how I bullshitted my way through my first round of Calc II and this was the main lesson I learned. Like practicing a language or a musical instrument, sustained daily practice is infinitely better than occasional cram sessions. I respect you all enough to spare you the “go to all of your classes” generic college advice, but make sure you’re paying a decent amount of attention and doing a decent amount of homework like 4-6 days a week. (All of these variables are up to you but be realistic about what you can/will/should do.) If you’re studying daily you can usually avoid a big bad cram session before the exam, and honestly if that doesn’t motivate you I dunno what will.
    TIPS ON HOW TO DO DAILY STUDY: Make sure you’re taking legible notes in class. Look over notes/textbook before starting the problem sets. Take a moment before doing a problem to think about how it can be solved/what information you have/need. Try to do your problem sets relatively soon after class, so it’s fresh in your mind and you can take a break from a problem and come back if you need to. Don’t be too quick to give up and look up the answer — if you have time to take a break, do it.
  • USE YOUR RESOURCES: Take advantage of your classmates by forming some sort of study group, but make sure it’s a productive one. You want people who are relatively close to your skill level so you work through problems and learn together rather than having one person straight up teach the other. (You & your study buddy will be symbiotic within the month.)
    Also, try and snare an additional textbook to use for alternative reading/problem sets. Your supplemental text doesn’t have to be fancy– it can be from the library, the thrift shop, or even an “old books sale” if your math department does that. (Like, don’t spend more than $5-10 on it.) This will give you an alternative resource to turn to that’s a bit more organized than the internet, which gives you a fresh look at the material when you need it.
    I also like the patrickJMT youtube channel and Khan Academy for video tutorials.
    If you want something more comprehensive to read re: math success, over the summer I read How To Succeed In College Mathematics by Richard M. Dahlke, PhD (that’s exactly how it looks on the front cover in case you want to search for it). It was a bit dense and some of the time management tips were a little optimistic but it did really change the way I look at my math courses.
  • STUDY FOR EXAMS THE RIGHT WAY: Honestly I think a lot of math courses do a crap job of teaching students how to study for exams. The truth is, you don’t need to reread the text 1000 times over. You actually need to grasp the concepts and do lots of practice problems.
    If your instructor doesn’t provide you with a practice exam, please refer to point 3 and use your resources. Hit the web 5-6 days before the exam and download 1-2 practice exams (make sure you can see the solutions when you’re finished). Start low-key studying about a week in advance by going over problems you missed the first time around and making a faux crib sheet. (Crib sheet, noun; a page brought to an exam containing all of the Important and Relevant formulas, concepts, theorems, etc.) Finally, when you’re closing in to the exam, sit down and do a practice exam from start to finish with no notes. Try to simulate a testing environment as closely as possible, so you’ll get a realistic idea of what the actual exam will feel like.
    This sounds like a lot, but your first 4 days of studying should be quick reviews, only 30-60 minutes depending on how much you missed the first time. The idea is to solidify what you learned, fill any holes, and then prepare mentally for the exam. YOU ARE NOT LEARNING THE MATERIAL RIGHT NOW, at least ideally.

The last thing I’d like to mention (which is a tip I got from the book in point 3) is that you should be careful about trying to use all these tips at the same time. Drastic changes to your study habits are likely to feel overwhelming and discouraging — if you’re trying to bring your grade up or even just improve comprehension, pick a category or two a week and incorporate some new elements into your routine. After just a month you’ll be in a better place with your course, but it won’t overwhelm you making the transition.
good luck,

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