Submitted by Richard Fried
College math classes alone are notorious for their difficulty, but when the format becomes completely virtual, they create a new beast entirely. As a math major with only upper-level courses left, I needed to learn how to survive some truly difficult math classes this semester, and I have some advice for those finding themselves taking one in the upcoming months.
If you want to do well in your math course without kissing your life goodbye, read on.
The Best Way To Improve your Grade is Right in Front of You
We all know the stereotype of the math professor who just copies the textbook in lecture, but these things actually happen! In fact, most students would likely agree that the pandemic made these things even more commonplace.
Without any personal connection to anyone in the class, your motivation will inevitably tank and your grade will likely follow. Therefore, finding a study buddy is the number one thing you can do to improve your chances of acing your exams.
By connecting with other cool people in your class, you’ll solve the age-old motivation problem. Most people don’t really care about math, and even if you’re one of the select few to find it fascinating (I promise, it’s not too bad!), you cannot rely solely on your interest to carry you. Your study buddy will keep you motivated and accountable for all the anxiety-causing tests, painfully difficult problem sets and boring lectures. By agreeing to meet with them, the work you do no longer becomes about just your grade; you have a person who relies on you.
This seems counterintuitive, but it really works! Take advantage of it, and make sure you find the right study buddy.
A good study buddy has a few crucial features
They’re (roughly) at the same mathematical level as you. This way, you can make sure that you are learning the material. If your partner gets all the answers, then there’s a chance you’ll take the answers without learning. (You probably don’t want someone who’s taken the course in high school or missed a few prerequisites that you have).
They want to do well in the class and understand the content. It’s important that both of you feel motivated to do well so you’ll stay on task. This seems obvious, but some students may pass/fail or have other obligations.
They’re a cool person that you’d hang out with, even if you weren’t in the same class! This is really important to build a sense of community and purpose.
To maximize your chances at finding someone like this, ask around and work with a bunch of different people until you find someone you vibe with—Zoom has a private chat for a reason!
Preparing for the Meetings
So, you found a friend to study with who’s just as terrified about the class as you. Now what?
First and foremost, set up a regular meeting time that fits in well with the schedule of your class. In general, it’s best to meet once before every assignment and assessment, but you can always add more if it helps. Are your problem sets due on Friday? Your best bet may be to work Thursday night on problems you didn’t understand. Do you have quizzes every Monday? Meet once over the weekend as a final review.
Next comes a bit of preparation. Each week, identify the most important technique or concept learned. This may be a particular way of solving an equation, or something more abstract such as the definition of a derivative. Now comes the tricky part. Find or come up with one problem on the week’s topic. The best source of these problems come from previous tests or your textbook. Not only will this help your partner, but it also helps you since you need to understand the content to find and formulate a well-posed problem.
Also, you’ll want to get a good start on any outstanding assignments for the class. Try to start this as early as you can to give yourself some time to mull over any difficult problems, but don’t worry if you cannot get everything. In general, try to have a bunch of the easy problems done along with a good start on the harder ones.
The specifics of this routine (picking and solving a problem, active recall, etc.) employ the most efficient and targeted learning techniques to learn mathematics. Things like rewriting notes and reading the textbook prove drastically ineffective when compared to solving difficult problems. For instance, working with a partner to quiz each other identifies as perhaps the single most important way to boost your grade. The routine keeps you and your partner up to date and ready for tests, while also saving a lot of time.
Time to work
So, now that you prepped for the meeting, you just need to actually meet with your partner.
The first thing you should do is swap problems with each other. Try to solve it and if you get stuck, ask your partner for any help. This step will help you keep up with content and not get left behind.
Then review the problems for homework that you both got done. Did you get the same answers? If not, why? How can you see something like this being asked on the test? Now that you got those out of the way, work together on the difficult ones. Compare what you tried and what did (and didn’t) work. You’d be surprised how often seemly impossible problems could be solved with two times the brainpower. If you both are still stuck, head to your professor’s office hours, or email the TA.
After all that, be sure to cut out some time to simply relax. You did the hard work, now treat yourself. You can just talk or even watch something on Netflix or otherwise. The great thing about a system like this is that your friend won’t only improve your grade, but they’ll also improve your college experience. In the long run, one class won’t matter too much, but I’ve met some of my best friends by working on projects and problems together, so don’t miss this chance! Get out there, make some friends and ace your math class!