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How to Study Math

Man studying math on a laptop computer.

You’re returning to college and are excited about earning your degree. But then you take a look at your required courses and realize that a math course or two stands between you and the diploma that will help you change or advance your career.

Hold on.

Before you lose any sleep over what’s ahead, realize that you’re not alone.

Math Isn’t Just a 4-letter Word

Instead of avoiding math, try viewing math as a great tool for figuring stuff out. Math can help you understand and interpret quantitative information, evaluate the reasonableness of that information and use that information to make good decisions.

That’s why math increasingly plays a critical role in all kinds of jobs. Want to see for yourself? There’s an entire website, WeUseMath.org, focused on the ways in which math affects every facet of our lives and especially on the career front.

5 Strategies for Learning Math

Instead of trying to speed through a course or grind through pages of math problems, Dr. Melissa Donovan, SNHU associate dean of faculty, mathematics and data analytics, recommends that students incorporate these five strategies to deepen their understanding of mathematics.

1. Change your approach to math.

Many people feel anxiety or fear when they’re confronted by a math problem. You’re not the only one who feels like you don’t get it.

The first step to putting those feelings behind you is to become a more self-regulated learner. It’s a simple strategy consisting of: plan, work, reflect.

  • Plan - Recognize what you know, what you don’t know, and map out the work you’ll need to do to get there.
  • Work - Make a conscientious effort to keep yourself focused while you are working, paying attention to which strategies and approaches work for you and which don’t. Take note of your feelings so you can recognize when your frustration level starts to creep up. That means it’s time to ask for help.
  • Reflection - After you finish your work, think about what you learned and how you learned it. This is where you overcome some of that fear and anxiety by recognizing what works for you and what doesn’t. This is where you make adjustments to your approach.

2. Identify your current math strengths and weaknesses.

If you haven’t studied math in quite a while, you may need help to determine which math concepts you know and where gaps in your understanding are, Donovan said.

For example, SNHU online students in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) degree programs can pay a fee of $25 for an online assessment that identifies which math skills they remember and which they will need to learn to be successful in their required math courses.

The program assesses math ability and provides personalized instruction before a student begins his or her first math class.

“It creates learning modules, worksheets, and practice questions--and you progress at your own speed,” Donovan said. “Everyone is on their own unique journey.”

3. Don’t hesitate to reach out to your instructor.

Math instructors see math anxiety all the time and are ready to help bridge the gaps between student misconceptions and how math is applied to solve problems in the workplace.

Donovan encourages students regularly to engage with their instructors and classmates as they navigate new math terms, concepts and problems. Don’t wait to reach out and let an instructor know where you’re having trouble.

Remember self-regulated learning? Recognize when it’s time to ask for help. “If you are brave enough to reach out you’d be surprised how much support you will find,” Donovan says.

4. Seek out additional learning resources.

In addition to your instructor and course materials, you can take advantage of a variety of supplemental math resources. Many schools offer support services – including resources like Frequently Asked Questions pages, tutors and learning communities ­– to help students excel in math.

5. Focus on solving problems.

When it comes to studying math, studies show that speed and memorization are not essential for success. Instead, students do best when they “… study problems they enjoy rather than drills they fear,” according to Jo Boaler, professor of mathematics education at Stanford Graduate School of Education.

Research shows that the strongest math students were not those who were the fastest, but those who used math concepts regularly and increased their math ability through problem solving rather than memorization.

Donovan agrees that adult students, in particular, feel courses that include real-world problems are more engaging and applicable to their career paths. “Students in statistics might be working to figure out the average gestational age of mice in a lab. Others may work on a problem that includes a biologist tagging bears and analyzing the data that comes with that,” she said.

"We aren't teaching you to just solve a math problem, we want to teach you to think in a logical, systematic way, which is exactly what employers are looking for," Donovan said.

Krysten Godfrey Maddocks ’11 is a writer and marketing/communication professional. Connect with her on LinkedIn.

STEM

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