There is no need to be afraid of college maths
Students can be better in maths if they approach it in the correct way
Published 17/08/2015 | 06:00
Taking some level of mathematics is becoming the norm for students at third level, partly because of the increased emphasis on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) subjects, as well as the key role that mathematics and numeracy play in other disciplines such as nursing, geography and economics. Several reports highlight the central position that mathematics holds in modern society, and a problem-solving ability (which should evolve naturally from studying mathematics) is a life skill and a critical skill that employers are looking for.
Unfortunately, there is still a perception that mathematics is an elite subject that only a few can master. Like any other subject, some people are better at mathematics than others, but just as with any other subject, the majority of students can be more than proficient in mathematics if they approach it in the correct way. Here are some important steps that can make a difference:
Engage fully: Attend all your classes and submit all coursework. If you fall behind, you should catch up quickly and get all the relevant material. You will need your lecture notes and recommended textbooks as the first place to look for help when you are studying.
Try mathematics on your own, before you ask for help: If you don't try mathematics on your own before getting help then you will struggle in your exams because you will not have learned how to deal with your difficulties independently.
Keep a list of problems: Students who encounter problems often comment that they don't know where to start to tackle the problem and the amount of material can be overwhelming. Keeping a list of the issues you are struggling with is a technique that many students use to great effect. Every time you study, or ask for help, you know exactly what your query is, and there is also great satisfaction from marking something off the list.
Accept that it is normal to make mistakes: Do not be afraid of being wrong, everyone who does mathematics spends time wondering what is going on and getting things wrong. A key difference between people who succeed at mathematics and those who do not, is that the people who succeed generally ask why they've gone wrong, they find the mistake or the point they do not quite understand, they ask (repeatedly) for help, and when they finally understand, they learn.
Ask for help: There will come a point where you get stuck and need help. Students should have some element of appropriate discussion on their material. Talk to your Department, your lecturers or tutors, ask your classmates, or work in a groups. Discussing mathematics problems in a group can be very productive, as long as the discussion is not always led by one or two demonstrating how to do the material.
Avail of Mathematics Learning Support (MLS) services: MLS is free non-judgmental help that is offered in the majority of third-level colleges in Ireland, in the form of drop-in centres, workshops, etc. Published research shows that, on average, students who avail of these supports appropriately demonstrate significant improvement in their grades and progression, and confidence in their own ability. There are also a range of free online resources and advice documents (with much more detail on some of the points in this article) from both staff and students.
As a starting point, check http://supportcentre.mathematics.nuim.ie/resources but your own institution will also have links.
Dr Ciarán Mac an Bhaird, Lecturer Mathematics Support Centre Manager, Maynooth University