Succeeding At College Math As An Adult Learner
Don't let your fear of college math stop you from enrolling in an online degree program.
"Do not worry about your difficulties in mathematics. I can assure you that mine are still greater."
— Albert Einstein
If you have an irrational fear of rational functions – or if the mere suggestion of quadratics causes you to quiver – you have lots of company.
While the overwhelming majority of Americans, 93 percent, agree that strong math skills are essential to being successful in life, nearly a third say they would rather clean the bathroom than solve a math problem.
"Many adults fear college math because of their inability to grasp concepts in the past," says Saint Leo instructor Domenic Gualtieri who teaches online math courses.
"I think math is difficult for many because, as a culture, we say it's okay – and even socially popular – to be bad at math," says University Campus math professor Dr. Jacci White, who also teaches math online. "A parent has no problem telling their child to wait until the other parent gets home for help because they can't do math."
White recalls her own father questioning her plan to get a master's degree in mathematics. "It was the only time in my life I can ever remember him doubting my ability, and of course, it stemmed from his less successful experiences with math," she says.
White thinks math may be difficult for many because it demands a correct answer. "Most other disciplines are not all or nothing," she says. "In math, if you do not know exactly which process to apply, chances are slim that you will get any credit. Failure is difficult for everyone, so emotions definitely come into play."
White also believes that many students who struggle are behind with their work.
"But are they behind because they do not understand it, or are they struggling because they got behind and did not finish the practice opportunities?"
The first step, perhaps, toward conquering one's fear of math is realizing that it really is a useful tool, both for communicating ideas and solving real-life problems – and it's not just about numbers and equations.
"Students learn mathematics to think through a process for solving problems, which parallels very closely what may be encountered in their professions," says Gualtieri.
With decades of business experience, Gualtieri uses actual workplace examples to illustrate the step-by-step approach to problem-solving that mathematics courses foster. He says that whether one works at MacDonald's assembling value meals or in an operating room doing knee replacement surgery, there is a step-by-step process for completing the task and the order in which each step is accomplished is important.
"It is the art and science of mathematics that teaches students how to solve non-mathematical problems through analysis and by devising a step-by-step process. Mathematics happens to use numbers, formulas and equations. Surgeons use anesthesia, medical equipment and medication. Both end up solving problems utilizing the correct resources and steps for a procedure."
Despite the benefits of studying mathematics, the struggle and anxiety persist. Here are some tips from Gualtieri and White that may help.
• Always complete every assignment.
White's biggest tip for students is to complete every assignment, an honest attempt at completing the assignment being better than no attempt at all.
"If you are struggling, even a score of 50 percent makes a big difference on your overall average compared to a score of 0 percent," she says. "Additionally, by pushing yourself to do every assignment, you force yourself to get help as soon as you need it, before the confusion becomes overwhelming."
• Get ahead and seek help early.
According to White, students are often so behind that they do not have time to get help. "They don't work on the assignment until they are up against a deadline, and tutors are not on duty. Therefore, many who miss an assignment simply run out of time and the week is over."
• Avoid cramming.
Gualtieri offers a similar suggestion: keep up with assignments, week by week, throughout the course. No last minute cramming.
"One of the examples I use is that of a marathon trainer. If the plan is to run the New York Marathon, you don't start practicing the week before the race. You work up to it over a period of many months. Analogously, math is mastered over a period of weeks with appropriate time spent mastering and practicing concepts."
• Take practice quizzes early and often.
"You get multiple attempts, so take practice quizzes early," says White. Then work with a tutor on the questions you miss and take the practice quiz again. Not only will you increase the grade on your practice quiz, but the improved understanding will increase the grade on the exam when you take it.
• Practice, practice, practice.
The need to practice to be successful at math is imperative, according to both White and Gualtieri. Most math classes have assignments that can be practiced an unlimited number of times before they are due, so take advantage of the "similar exercise" option at the bottom of homework problems to improve your score and your understanding.
• Use online resources
The Kahn Academy is just one resource you can use for additional explanation and practice. A few YouTube channels for college algebra help include:
Experts who study the brain and how learning works have said for some time that the brain is like a muscle. New neural connections develop and strengthen when we struggle with and complete difficult tasks more than when we fly through easy tasks.
Carol Dweck has been studying how we can grow our brains' capacity to learn and solve problems for years. She says that it's through effort and difficulty that we get smarter.
It's not that you are not smart enough to solve the problem, she says. It's just that you have not solved it yet.
What has helped you find success with college math?