Occupy Math: Back-to-School

Staples High School

Occupy Math is in the process of fine-tuning his syllabus for his first-year calculus class, getting the class web site up and polished, picking papers for his research group’s journal club, and in general preparing for the onslaught of students young and old. This post is about surviving your math classes in your first year of university, though some of the advice is good for both upper-level high school courses and second- and even third-year university courses. The advice includes how to interact with your instructor: a much neglected topic in Occupy Math’s opinion. Occupy Math is teaching first year calculus in a blended calculus and physics course so the issue of “transition to University” is much on his mind.


What do you mean “Transition to University”?

High school and university are different. A key point is the university classes go faster than high school courses. Another pressure point is that it is assumed, at least at Occupy Math’s institution, that you already know arithmetic, algebra, and trigonometry. Occupy Math includes a review of these topics in the first chapter of the book he wrote for his course. If you really are reviewing, this or the equivalent in your textbook may be enough. Otherwise, get help! It’s hard to self-study algebra or trig.

Other important points include that it will dawn on you that your parents are not keeping track of you the way they used to. There are a huge variety of social activities and an absolute mob of other people to interact with. You may have a roommate — someone you don’t know well — sharing a room with you. There is a good chance you are in an interesting new place — possibly with different customs or rules. All of this can be a huge distraction. Do your best not to get into too much trouble because of all the interesting things around you.


Office Hours

Occupy Math’s third and fourth year students live in his office hours. His first year students mostly don’t come to office hours. There is a lot of help available and the first year students are mostly passing it up. There are other related problems. The biggest part of the grade in Occupy Math’s course is the homework. In many high school courses, the homework is not graded. Somehow the students avoid reading the rules of the course which tell them how their grade will be computed. “I have a question about the homework?” is a really good opening line for office hours. Some simple tips:

  • Read the course handout and think about it in strategic terms.
  • If you think you know what is going to happen because of your high school classes, take a cold shower and try again — you are wrong.
  • If you don’t understand something, ask about it!
  • Keep up with the assignments. Behind is bad everywhere, but it is deadly in math class because math builds on itself.
  • There is usually a strong connection between the examples presented in class and the stuff that appears on your homework and tests. Make it to class, take notes, and exploit this connection.


Your Mileage May Vary

Occupy Math has teaching awards and cares about teaching. He writes textbooks and drags students to office hours, in part to get a perspective on what they are having trouble with. There are instructors who think of office hours as time to catch up on their Netflix queue, work on their research, or catch up with their mindless paperwork. Figure out, as soon as you can, what kind of professor you have. There are websites like Rate your Professor that contain some useful information. Some universities have internal instructor ratings. The second year students will have opinions which may be helpful and may be correct. If you have a choice of instructors, definitely check them out ahead of time.

At Occupy Math’s institution we have a room, staffed 4-6 hours every week day, where you can go to get help. If your instructor is useless, terrifying, or really hard to understand, go to the help room. There are also peer-instruction groups that may be helpful. Failing all else, make friends with someone who took the class last year and solicit their frank opinions.

Online Resources

There are a lot of places where you can learn things on-line. Occupy Math’s favorites include:

  • Three Blue One Brown which has all sorts of topics including some basic calculus explained in a clear and intuitive way.
  • Khan academy has a pile of math stuff.
  • Numberphile which is more educational than helpful with homework.
  • Vihart is entertaining, informative, and may improve your attitude.


Things that can help

Here are things that will help you do well in a typical math class. Your personal circumstances and preparation affect which ones help the most.

  • Take handwritten notes and recopy them neatly into another notebook.
  • Form a study group. Check your homework with one another and help one another to get things done.
  • If you miss class, get the notes from somebody and make sure to get any announcements.
  • Do not be afraid of asking for help.
  • If something is actually wrong with the instructor, talk to your academic counsellor or, possibly, the chairman of the department.
  • Read Occupy Math’s blog Math is not a form of ritual magic.
  • If you understand the math, you will do much better than if you just memorize things that you think will be on the test.
  • If extra credit is offered, take it, unless you really need the time for your other classes.


Things that can hurt

  • Skipping class. Even if there are on-line notes, the instructor’s jibber-jabber provides context.
  • Coming to class hungry, exhausted or otherwise unable to pay attention.
  • Asking for extra credit work to make up stuff you skipped. At some places this is against the rules and it angers some instructors.
  • Don’t say “I’m totally lost” when you come to office hours. Read the relevant part of the text and the problems first and come to office hours with specific questions like “Any suggestion for problem 23”. In general, be as prepared as you can. Sounding like a slacker diminishes the instructor’s desire to help you.
  • If you’re spending time figuring out why it’s not reasonable for you to have to take the course, you are either wasting time or you may be in the wrong major.
  • Telling yourself that math is useless. First of all, it is not useless. Second, if you are taking a math class, you at least have to deal with it, and indulging in angst about why you shouldn’t need math just slows you down.

Go. To. Class.

Showing up to class means you hear things. These can include things like the time that professor will hold a review session and what the next quiz is about. It also lets you interact with the other students, which can help quite a lot. If something is not clear, you can ask about it — getting the instructor to do a second example of something tricky can really help. Finally, if you go to class, the instructor is more likely to know who you are. It is not fair, but it is true, that this can help your grade.

Why do people skip class? Need to sleep and being tempted by friends that should, perhaps, be better friends are high on the list. Skipping class when you have a cold or the flu is a good idea: please don’t give your disease to everyone else. Skipping class because you are hung over means you are not managing your time as well as you could. If you’re skipping class because you are afraid of looking stupid or are afraid of the instructor, get help. Friends, older students, the academic counsellor, whoever, but get that help.

Time to sum up!

Occupy Math likes students that show up and try. A big part of this is because these students turn in work that is easy to grade and they get high marks, making Occupy Math look good. If you work hard on your classes and get good marks, this opens doors. Having said this, learning life skills and having a social life also help. It is possible to study too hard. If you have any survival issues, or if you’ve survived something dicey, please drop Occupy Math a line at dashlock@uoguelph.ca. It may spark a blog and Occupy Math may have some advice. Please comment if you think there are other issues that need to be in a back to school blog.

I hope to see you here again,
Daniel Ashlock,
University of Guelph,
Department of Mathematics and Statistics


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