Sunday, November 13, 2011

The secret to getting through your math classes

The number one struggle I see students face in community college academia is math. It is no surprise as in measurements of our country’s student performance in reading, science, and math that math ranks the lowest by far (and far below many other countries).

I see this manifested in the lives of students every day who just can’t seem to pass certain classes and proclaim the old adage heard in middle and high schools ‘round the world – “why do I have to learn this if I’m never going to use it in real life?”

Have you ever said or thought this? It’s okay if you have. I have too and indeed have often wondered how our educational systems are designed to prepare us for a professional world that often seems starkly different from the world of public and higher education.

The obvious truth is that we won’t use everything we learn in our educational lives. The show Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader (e.g. I am not) is perfect proof of this and thus provided a lot of humor at how quickly we forget what we learn in our school-lives. However, does this mean it is purposeless? Should traditional schooling go away and should we just train for jobs and learn only exactly what we will use in our every day lives?


I definitely think we need more integrated and interactive activities in education that tie the concepts to real-world problems in ways that can further increase students’ communication, critical thinking, and creative skills.

However, even though we may not be able to do fractions in the same way we could in 5th grade does not mean learning them wasn’t valuable.

And not just valuable so you could move forward in this educational system we’ve created. But valuable in and of itself.

This is the secret to getting through math classes (or for all you math geniuses – the same can apply to getting through your English classes – essentially, this is the secret to getting through any class in which you have a hard time seeing its value in your life).

What is the secret? It came from a student comment this week.

I was talking to one of my students – an aspiring computer engineer – about his struggles in his pre-calculus class. He was studying so hard and yet still struggling on the tests and couldn’t figure out why. He was trying so hard but was still having trouble getting higher than a C. 

I asked him, like I ask all my students when they are really struggling with a class, if that class is an important part of their future major/career (e.g. if you’re ever struggling really hard with a class that plays a big part in your future major/career and will continue to build upon itself as you progress in your educational plan it might be a good time to reconsider your major).

First he said that no, he was not going to need to build upon calculus in his ed plan nor have to use it in his future career. And what he said next was an epiphany to me – the secret to getting through classes to which you don’t see a point.

He said – “I think they [they meaning the people who build curriculum for future computer engineers] want me to take pre-calculus because they want me to be able to think in computer engineering the way I have to think in order to solve calculus problems.


This, to me, is IT. This is the secret. Disappointed that I didn’t give you some secret formula guaranteed to make math suddenly easy? Well guess what, I did :)

Because when you change your attitude, you change your life. And your attitude towards your class subjects affects your grades more than you realize.   

Especially in the first two years of college when you have to meet general education requirements we all have those classes that we just don’t care for, the classes we just don’t see the point in, the classes we wonder like we started to wonder in 7th grade – why do I have learn this if I’m never going to use it in my life?

You’re not going to love every subject and that is okay. But you can love and appreciate every class. How do I know? Because I did.

Sure there were some classes that drove me crazy at times. And I wasn’t some book nerd who just loved school and nothing but school so help me library. I just learned to love and appreciate and value the opportunity I had to sharpen my mental skills.

I knew 100% that I would never use the formulas I learned in chemistry in my life (I just tried for 3 minutes to remember the name of the formula I was thinking of and couldn’t….). But I felt great pride in learning something new about the world, becoming a well-rounded person, gaining a better understanding of how interconnected all areas of knowledge are, and sharpening my skills to think scientifically. While I’ll never do the experiments I did in lab I use the scientific method all the time in my day-to-day life without realizing it.

Every class offers you an opportunity to become more intelligent, to use different parts of your brain, to discover all kinds of subjects in order to narrow in on what you most enjoy and what you are best at, and sharpen your mental capacity so that you can develop the extremely high level of critical thinking, communication, and creative skills that our new knowledge economy demands for success and financial stability.

I’ll never forget how my perception of education shifted after reading a book in one of my college classes called The Lost Boys of Sudan. The non-fiction book chronicled the journeys of young men from their war-ridden countries to America. This book deeply impacted me because it shared the young men’s fervent desires to get an education, to learn. To them, education was gold. Education was the highest honor. Education was the greatest gift.

Though our country is struggling in many ways right now it is easy to forget how blessed we are. It’s easy to forget how few get the privilege of sitting in those math classes. As a woman, it’s easy for me to forget that if I had been born 200 years ago I would not have even been seen as someone worth educating.

It’s easy for these facts to become just dusty parts of a boring history class. But if you let them become real, you will find that despite the immense struggles I know you face every day your attitude of thankfulness and appreciation for your education will help you thrive in every class and in every endeavor.

A change in attitude can change your life.

And even if you have to pause for a second when a student asks you what 200 divided by 4 is (yes…happened to me 2 days ago), you can still be proud of your grades in math and appreciate the importance of the subject in all of our lives – because even if you won’t use it every day, someone will, and they never would have known it if they hadn’t had to take that class.

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