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Revisiting Mathematics

by Joanne Guidoccio

I sat and looked at the letter for a while. Susan Davies. The name was familiar and then I remembered. I had taught Susan in her junior year. A hard working young woman with great social skills, but she struggled in mathematics. She actually celebrated each time she squeaked through a test. And now, almost twenty years later, she needed my help.

Susan had lost her job as a florist when her boss decided to sell the business and move to Florida. Lacking any formal education, she decided to reinvent herself and pursue a bachelor’s degree in psychology. But now, after successfully completing two semesters of the program, she faced the challenge of an introductory statistics course. She would be revisiting her worst nightmare — mathematics. Susan was panicking and actually thinking of switching programs. It will take some effort, but Susan can turn this situation around and learn how to thrive in math class. I have the following advice for her and any other adults experiencing math anxiety.

Plan Ahead

As soon as you receive your timetable and/or syllabus, write down the code for the math course and check the description online or in the school calendar. Call or visit the book store and order your textbook ahead of time. Find out about math labs, tutors and other available resources at the institution.

With the textbook and course description in hand, carefully examine the topics to be covered. While the course content may appear unfamiliar and intimidating, you will probably recognize such terms as algebra, graphing, operations and trigonometry. If finances permit, hire a tutor to focus on the skills you will need for the upcoming course. Consider keeping him or her for the entire semester. Alternatively, you can ask a librarian or former instructor to recommend a good resource manual that will reintroduce and reinforce basic mathematical skills.

Improve Work Habits

Start treating mathematics like a second language that must be practiced daily. You cannot afford to take any short cuts, miss classes or fall behind with homework and assignments. Each day, you must re-read your course notes and complete all the homework assigned. Begin assignments early and take advantage of tutorials and other assistance offered by the instructor.

If you are taking the course on campus, choose your seat carefully. Do not gravitate toward the back of the room or sit beside chatty students. Instead, sit in the front center of the room where you have full view of the instructor, blackboard, and other audiovisual presentations. Maintain eye contact with the instructor and do not be afraid to ask questions, especially if you encounter any discrepancy or difficulty with the material. To avoid taking up too much class time, arrive a few minutes early or stay after class to clear up any problems.

Use the Textbook Effectively

Do not follow the example of students who focus only on the pages and questions assigned by the instructor. New textbooks can be very expensive, but they also contain valuable resources that can help students improve their performance in mathematics. A preview—summary of basic skills required for the unit—appears at the beginning of each chapter. Practice and cumulative tests appear throughout the text. Use the preview and these tests to review basic skills and reinforce new concepts.

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