6 Myths about learning Mathematics


Mathematics continues to be a challenging subject for many students.  There is a lot of good materials to study from.  There are also a set of assumptions that are not valid.  Here are a set of common myths about learning maths.

  1. Once I understand a mathematical concept, I can solve any problem

Understanding is the first step.  Applying that understanding to a problem requires a different level of ability.  The ability to solve problems increases with extensive practice; applying the understanding of the concept first in easy ways and then in increasingly difficult situations.  There is no effective substitute to regular practice.

  1. Videos with a lot of animation will help me master a concept

Research in cognitive load theory explains that while we learn better if both auditory and visual senses are engaged, our working memory has very limited capacity.  Extensive animation can contribute to the extraneous load on our memory, distracting us from reaching the desired learning outcome.  Hence, videos can be very effective, but while cool animations look nice, they get in the way of learning.

  1. Once I score well in a topic, I have mastered it.

Unfortunately, that is not true.  What is needed is ‘sustained’ practice.  You need to continuously revisit the same set of skills.  The good news is that much of mathematics is sequential; so working on a new topic automatically revisits an earlier one.  To achieve real mastery, it is important to prepare well, and then revisit a chapter several times.

  1. It is very important to have someone to help me as soon as I get stuck while solving a problem

Strangely, this too is not true.  Struggle activates part of the brain that triggers deeper learning.  If someone is available to solve a problem as soon as you face it, you do not learn how to solve it.  However, if you are not able to solve a problem despite struggling, then getting help is important, otherwise it becomes frustrating.

  1. A good reporting system helps me do better

Most reports tell you where you stand.  That is useful, but to a limited extent, mostly because it tells you what has happened in the past, which is not always a window into the future.  However, if information about your progress and performance is used to direct you to specific actions, then it is very useful.

  1. People learn better when there is no exam pressure

Exams can put a lot of pressure on students.  At the same time, having a timeline that is externally enforced, help many of us to focus and prepare.  A good idea is to have definitive learning goals with timelines – some pressure but not too much.  Having no pressure at all, results in students avoiding subjects that they struggle with.

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