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Learn mathematics well

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Key takeaways

  • If you had sufficient time and resources, a case may be made that you should learn all subjects in the curriculum well. But that's not possible in the real world. We still strongly recommend that you consider learning mathematics well, in addition to the subjects that fascinate you.
  • In general, a number of people do not learn math as well as their potential. Not everybody can become a genius at mathematics, but most people (including you) can get a lot better than they currently are. A lot of people mistakenly believe, or affirm, statements of the form "I'm not a math person" and these prevent them from achieving their potential.
  • If the resources at your school are not helpful (for instance, you have a bad teacher or peer learning environment) there are still many ways for you to learn math well. Some strategies are described and linked on this page.
  • Learning mathematics conceptually is hardest, but it generates greater benefits than learning mathematical techniques through rote memorization and practice. However, even the latter may be quite helpful to you relative to not learning the subject at all. If you are thorough with the computational processes, it would make it easier for you to learn math at a conceptual level later when you have access to quality teachers and resources.

Why learn math?

Further information: Learning mathematics: benefits

The following are some general reasons for learning mathematics well.

  1. Hierarchical: Later material in the curriculum depends heavily on earlier material (with a few important exceptions, such as many parts of geometry, plus advanced techniques within individual sections).
  2. Unidirectional transfer to many other domains: Mathematics, at both the computational and conceptual level, gets used extensively in physics, chemistry, economics, and the social sciences. Mathematics, up to and including multivariable calculus and linear algebra, is particularly important for understanding statistics rigorously.
  3. Importance for college gateway examinations (such as SAT and ACT): A strong background in mathematics helps with the math (quantitative) part of the SAT, as well as with the SAT Math Subject Test. It also helps with the math part of the ACT if you choose to take that test. The situation is likely similar in many other countries.
  4. General reasoning ability: Mathematics, if understood well, can help with general reasoning.

Psychological barriers to learning math well

Many people experience mathematical anxiety and believe that they're not well-suited to doing mathematics well, independently of their skill level. This belief can hinder their capacity to develop mathematical mastery.

  • It is certainly the case that some people have stronger cognitive skills and can learn mathematics faster. However, this does not mean that other people will be unable to learn math. There are many strategies for people to overcome limitations with working memory or processing speed in order to learn math well.
  • People often have the impression that others who seem to grasp a new idea conceptually and deeply somehow do so naturally and effortlessly. However, the people who have a strong mathematical intuition generally spend a lot of time thinking about math in general in order to develop that intuition. You may not want to reach that level yourself if math does not fascinate you enough to put in the effort. But you can reap good rewards by moving somewhat in the direction.

How can one learn math well?

There are some general good study habits that help with learning any subject well. There are also some general online mathematics learning resources. On this page, we describe some aspects of the strategies and resources that are specific to mathematics.

Supplementing rote and immediate practice

In many cases, students have access to straightforward descriptions of the procedure they need to apply to solve a particular class of mathematical problem. They read the process, look at a worked example, then try a few examples of their own. They find that their answers are correct, and conclude that they have learned the subject.

There are several problems with this type of learning:

  • The practice is being done immediately after reading the procedure and looking at the worked examples. This means that the student may be learning the material using his/her short term memory rather than long term memory. He/she may well forget the technique and be unable to do problems of the same type just a few days later.
  • The textbook from which they are obtaining the problems may have deliberately designed the worked problem, and other problems to match each other very well. So students who learn in this way may be thrown off by similar but slightly different problems that they encounter later .
  • The student may not obtain any conceptual understanding of the material, so he/she may be completely unable to use the ideas behind the procedure in different contexts, or reconstruct the procedure in the event that he/she forgets it.

The following approaches can help you avoid these pitfalls:

  • Maintain some spacing being doing a worked problem (where you follow indicated steps) and doing practice problems. In some cases, you may prefer to do one practice problem immediately after the worked problem, and a few more after a few days. This is a special case of the more general strategy of spaced repetition.
  • When you attempt practice problems a few days after doing the worked problem, pay particular attention to the parts that you are stuck at. These are probably the parts that you have conceptual trouble with. Do not just open up the worked problem again without making a serious effort.
  • Attempt practice problems that are framed somewhat differently from the original worked problem. Most books have large numbers of exercises to choose from, and good teachers generally give a varied mix of problems, but pay conscious attention to this issue if you are studying by yourself, or if your teacher isn't giving you a varied mix.
  • Wherever possible, try to acquire the conceptual intuition behind the steps. The texts or resources you use often do offer conceptual explanations, but these may not be highlighted because the authors expect that most students just want to master the algorithms and do not care about the explanations.

Online math learning resources

Further information: Online math learning resources

Note that websites often add new features and improve existing ones, so the information here may not be up-to-date.

Resource Link to website Videos explaining the content? Text explanations of concepts? Practice problems sorted by area? Dependencies between topics explicitly codified?
ALEKS No No Yes Yes, done at a considerable level of detail using knowledge spaces.
Khan Academy Yes; comprehensive coverage but not high quality No Yes Yes, but this is a new feature and may not be very thorough.
Brilliant No No (with a few exceptions) Yes No (though they may be doing this soon)
PatrickJMT Yes No No No

Math reading recommendations

See our math reading recommendations page.