Taking some level of maths or statistics is the norm for many students at third level, partly due to an increased emphasis on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) subjects, as well as the central role that maths and numeracy play in disciplines such as Nursing, Geography, Economics etc. Several reports highlight the key position that maths holds in modern society, and a problem-solving ability (which should evolve naturally from studying maths) is a life and critical skill that employers are looking for.
Unfortunately, there is still a perception that maths is an elite subject that only a few can master. Like any other subject, some people are better at maths than others, but just as with any other subject, the majority of students can be more proficient in maths if they approach it in the correct way. Here is a collection of important advice from students, and staff know that these steps can make a difference.
Attend all your classes and submit all coursework. If you fall behind, you should try to catch up quickly and get all the relevant material. You will need your lecture notes and recommended textbooks as the first place to look for help when you are studying.
Try maths on your own, before you ask for help
If you do not try mathematics on your own before getting help, then you will struggle to identify the specific issues causing you difficulty. As a result, the help you have received may not be effective in the longer term.
Keep a list of problems
Students who encounter problems often comment that they do not know where to start to tackle the problem, and that the amount of material can be overwhelming. Keeping a list of the issues you are struggling with is a technique that many students find useful. Every time you study, or ask for help, you know exactly what your query is, and there is the satisfaction of marking something off the list, something you now understand and you can see progression.
Accept that it is normal to make mistakes
Everyone who does mathematics can spend time wondering what is going on and getting things wrong. A key difference between people who succeed at mathematics and those who do not, is that the people who succeed generally ask why they’ve gone wrong, they find the mistake or the point they do not quite understand, they ask (repeatedly) for help, and when they finally understand, they learn.
Ask for help
There will come a point where you get stuck and need help. Students should have some element of appropriate discussion on their material. Talk to your Department, your lecturers or tutors, ask your classmates, or work in a group with other students. Discussing mathematics problems in a group can be very productive, as long as the discussion is not always led by one or two demonstrating how to do the material.
Avail of MLS services
Maths Learning Support (MLS) is free non-judgmental help that is offered in the majority of higher education institutions in Ireland, e.g. drop-in centres, workshops, etc. Research shows that, on average, students who avail of these supports appropriately demonstrate significant improvement in their grades and progression, and confidence in their own ability. There are also a range of free online resources and advice documents (with much more detail on some of the points in this article) from both staff and students. As a starting point, check http://supportcentre.mathematics.nuim.ie/resources but your own institution will also have links.
Dr Ciarán Mac an Bhaird, Lecturer, Department of Mathematics and Statistics and Director of the Maths Support Centre at Maynooth University