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Wednesday 17 September 2014

Why every student needs to make sure the maths add up

Mark Russell

Published 18/08/2014 | 06:00

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Maths at third level takes a different approach to the Leaving Cert.
Maths at third level takes a different approach to the Leaving Cert.

Many students confuse being "good at maths" or a language etc. as being talented in that area. Talent is something you're born with and if you weren't born "good at maths" then what's the point of studying it?

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In fact none of those subjects; maths, languages, music etc are talents. Even art is something that is more skill that talent. Psychology and brain research indicate that it is learning a skill that is truly useful and that every brain is designed to allow that to happen. That means that no one is bad at maths, languages etc., they are just not skilful at the moment.

Learning a skill takes time. It is not just understanding and remembering a topic, it also requires you to put that into practice and do it accurately. This is especially true for languages / programming / maths and all numerical-based subjects. Be patient with yourself, learning a skill means learning from your mistakes. So make lots of mistakes through practising and you will gradually realise that you are becoming highly skilled. What this means for you is that you can excel in any subject .

How to become "good at maths" or any other numbers-based topic: Many students are surprised by the level of maths required. Business, management and marketing students are often surprised by statistics / quantitative methods, which is all maths-based. Would it be possible to make sound business decisions without accurate information? Probably not, but that doesn't make learning it any easier.

Engineering students quickly find out that the analysis needed to understand engineering challenges / solutions are predominantly maths-based. They often say that had they studied physics in school they would comprehend what was required. In essence, the issue lies at a more fundamental level. If you can do the maths contained in all these subjects and understand why you are doing the maths, then it becomes merely a tool you use to ensure your solution is a sound one.

Many students feel intimidated by maths and with good reason. The Leaving Certificate has trained you to learn a prepared answer to a question that you hope you will be on the exam paper. This means that you have to memorise big blocks of information and try to recall it as accurately as you can on the day of the exam. This approach doesn't work with any numerical-based subject like quantitative methods or engineering science. It does mean that you are not bad at maths but that you need to use a different approach for college and indeed for work.

Being good at these subjects will make your time in college MUCH easier. Here's how anybody can be good at maths or any number-based subject. You'll need to develop two traits; resilience and consistency.

Resilience: When you see a maths topic for the first time and try to solve it, you'll probably get it wrong and be completely baffled. That means you're normal. It also means you need to be resilient. Try again and it will more than likely be the same. The third attempt will be 90pc there and after that it's like riding a bike; you'll never forget it and you won't have to think about it much.

Consistency: If you let your emails or texts back up from your first day in college until the night before your exams, you'd have quite a bit of reading and responding to do. Most people keep on top of it by reading and responding every day. Maths needs the same approach. Doing your maths topics as regularly as two to three times a week makes this subject an easy proposition. Sure it's still a challenge but you're dealing with it and there is no reason to be intimidated by it.

Of course you'll need help along the way. If you've got a maths / stats / physics problem you can't solve, ask your tutor.

* Mark Russell, Dublin Institute of Technology

Irish Independent

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