Geetanjali Mukherjee

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Who's Afraid of Math?

I was auditing this course on Coursera (Learning How to Learn), which gives strategies on how to learn more effectively. I was intrigued and was watching the videos. Interestingly, some of the insights apply not just to learning, but also to creating (that's for another post).

One of the videos led me to have an a-ha moment. The lecturer, Dr. Barbara Oakley, was talking about her story of learning languages and being in the army, and how relatively late in her life, she turned to math and computer science and qualified as an engineer, despite having a phobia of math in high school. She talked in detail how she overcame her fear, and got better at the subject. The video explained that math and other technical subjects require practice, to spend time working on problems over an extended period of time, while the concepts slowly become embedded in our long-term memory. At this point, using those concepts in tests or other applications will be easy.

This was astonishing to me, as somehow her story sparked me in the thought that maybe it wasn't that I was bad at math per se, its just that I had applied the wrong technique or given up too easily.

In elementary school, when my mum taught me math through everyday objects, I aced every single test. After encountering a few terrible teachers, I started to dislike the subject, and in high school, really struggled with it. I had a tutor all through high school, and still didn't really do too well. In fact, in 10th grade I came first in school in the board exams, and topped the class in every subject other than Math. By this time it was official, I was hated math, and was afraid of it. I was one of the editors for the school magazine, and used my privileges to cut math class as often as I could, ostensibly to "cover" school sports events for the magazine, but basically to hide from logs and differential equations.

So I didn't really have the best track record with learning math. When I was listening to Dr. Oakley talking about her struggles, I could relate. But then she revealed that she was not only an engineer, she had a PhD in engineering. At that moment, it was as if a switch flipped in my head, and I thought, maybe I can overcome my fear of math too.

A few days later I went to the local library and got a few math textbooks and brought them home. This was so alien, I couldn't help feeling very strange. But I was determined to see if I could change how I approached studying math. The videos I watched described how becoming familiar with each concept could help with subsequent ones, and it was simply a matter of practicing enough to embed the ideas in our brain.

I started with the first chapter - determined to approach using the skills I had learnt from this course, and the other material on learning that I have read recently. Something that I didn't know in high school or college, but learnt recently, that passively reading or copying answers from the text book doesn't lead to effective learning, but testing yourself does. In this context, I decided that as far as possible, I would try to attempt every question, even the sample ones, myself, only turning to the book when stuck.

This turned out to be a really good strategy - as I found myself remembering some things, and stuck in others. The book I was working on focused exclusively on word problems, something I had a lot of difficulty with in school. I am talking the questions on trains meeting after 2 hours, or pipes filling a tank. These were the questions that I dreaded in school (not to mention probably bombed on my GRE Math test).

Going through the book, which had tons of examples and very simple approaches to each type of problem, I started to feel a sense of accomplishment. I usually only got one or two questions wrong in each quiz, and I could feel myself getting more and more familiar with the material. I woke up each morning, stealing time from writing, to sit with my math textbook. This became my guilty pleasure, and I was loving(!) every minute. My rule was, that as soon as I got tired, I could stop. Most days I worked on problems for about 45 minutes, although some days it was less. I was racing through the book, some chapters ridiculously easy. I was even tempted to quit, since I didn't feel like the problems were really challenging me, but I was determined to get through the entire book.

Now I am on chapter 10 of 12. I stumbled a bit on the problems about trains and pipes, but I got through that chapter. I am unbelievably ecstatic that I could learn how to do something almost effortlessly, that in high school would be unthinkable. I used to routinely go to my dad for help on those train questions, and although he could solve them, they were still slightly difficult for him. With the help of this book, I now found them effortless.

The lesson I learnt from this experiment (still ongoing), is bigger than learning how to do high school algebra. What I learnt is that it is easy to give up on something difficult and think, its not for me. I knew I was smart, and yet I secretly believed I was smart in a certain kind of way, i.e. the non-math way. I believed that I wasn't going to ever have a head for numbers, even though I did well with economics classes at graduate school, and had even used calculus for one of my classes. I learnt just enough to get through the class, but didn't go beyond.

Now I am approaching it very differently. Instead of just mindlessly going through the textbook, trying to copy the problems, I made sure to test myself on each question, trying to do it myself, and relishing the feeling of learning something very new. I also realized that practicing the same type of problem over and over really helped to cement the knowledge.

I intend to use this method beyond quadratic equations. I sometimes have a tendency to believe that certain forms of writing are beyond me, and that it may be too late to learn. There are many other areas of my life where I simply decided I didn't have what it takes. These last few weeks of studying math has changed these beliefs, replacing them with confidence - I know that if I practice hard enough, and are willing to consistently put in the work, I can learn anything I want to.

What new skill or subject would you like to learn if you knew you absolutely couldn't fail?

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