Math and the Nontraditional Student – Power Tips to Get Past the Math Barrier

Math and the Nontraditional Student – Power Tips to Get Past the Math Barrier

Nontrads (non-traditional students) are those who do not follow the traditional path of completing high school and then immediately enrolling in college or university. They are often over 25 years of age and may have been in the job market or been stay-at-home parents prior to making the decision to pursue a higher education degree or certificate. Some attended college for a semester or two and then dropped out, only to decide later that they want to return and finish a degree. Some have been downsized and are looking for a change in vocation. Most of them share one common concern: getting through the math general studies requirement.

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This is a valid concern. Math is developmental in that your knowledge and skills in math are added to in successive courses with each class being a critical stone in the foundation necessary for passing general studies math (often College Algebra or Finite Math). If you had a couple of bad years or if you have been away from math for some time you really won’t know until you try if it is going to be like getting back on a bicycle or getting run over by a truck cours particuliers maths.

But there are some things you can do before and during your courageous venture into mathland as a non-traditional student. Speaking from my years of tutoring, helping, and teaching nontrads, here are some tips and suggestions:

Before You Start Class

1. TURN TO MIDDLE SCHOOL AND HIGH SCHOOL MATH BOOKS TO PREPARE YOU. Problems with any math course are situated in prior courses. In other words, If you anticipate having problems in College Algebra, the problem will not be with understanding the new material as much as in not being able to pull together the foundational knowledge and skills from High School Algebra II. If you had the stuff of Algebra II at the tips of your fingertips, you would be able to draw from that to use in the slightly higher application level of College Algebra. Middle school and early high school texts will help you return to the foundations you need and will do it in a way that is simple, clear, and not as rushed as the one chapter review that is often at the beginning of a College Algebra text. In fact, it is the compressed first chapter that often contributes to a loss of hope at a critical point in the new beginning for a non-traditional student. Let’s get past that, shall we?

2. GET YOUR OWN SUPPORT GROUP. Recruit a buddy or two to go back to school with you. Vow from the beginning that you will encourage and support each other through the challenges ahead. Pick carefully. Avoid negative personalities that will drag you down instead of working alongside of you. Pick someone you can communicate with, someone who will listen and “speak the truth in love.” You want someone who will be able to have give and take with you so you can help each other adjust how you each think and how you approach the challenges both intellectually and emotionally. Hopefully, this person will be as focused as you and will persevere to the completion of the degree.

3. ASK ABOUT THE PROFESSORS. Before you commit to a particular section and teacher, do what smart college students do: ask about the professors. Do this with a discerning ear. If you detect that the person giving you the lowdown on Professor H is a whiner, then take that information with a grain of salt. Ask several others about Professor H and put together an overall profile of that teachers style, classroom practices, and personality. It could be that they are demanding but very clear and fair. That would be good. As a nontrad, you really don’t want the easiest path because you know by now that learning is hard and you would rather REALLY learn now so the job that you will be dependent upon is easier later. The nontraditional support group or center on campus may be able to help you. It’s possible that center employees would not be comfortable with naming names and steering you away from that professor who is a real jerk. But I bet the students working and congregating there would give you an earful!

4. IF NECESSARY, DROP BACK A LEVEL. Most colleges and universities will give you a free diagnostic test to tell you if you are ready to start with the general studies math course or if you should drop back to a developmental math course that is at a lower level. If you have any doubts, take the test and find out. It’s better to put in a semester firming up the foundations and then sailing through College Algebra or Finite Math than it is to fail and lose the semester and a whole lot of confidence and forward momentum.

During the Class

5. ATTITUDE IS ALMOST EVERYTHING. I used to have students ask, “How important is this class? The class was College Algebra so my initial answer was, “How much do you want to graduate?” If you have to pass a class in order to graduate, then that class is pretty important. But I point to the question above because it indicates a bad attitude–what I call a stopper attitude. Some attitudes can slow you down; others can stop you in your tracks. A bad attitude toward math will stop you from learning and from doing the things you must do in order to be successful. If you detect a bad attitude toward math, you must deal with it. How do you do that? It’s just an emotion–change it.

I once worked with a nontrad who fought and railed against math on a daily basis as I tried to tutor her in the Beginning Algebra course. After she had come to trust that I had her best interests at heart, I said to her, “You’re right. You should quit.” Her mouth fell open and she looked up at me in shock. “You’re right,” I continued. “You should quit wasting your time here and get a job in fast food.” She looked at me in horror for another minute and then broke out in laughter as she said, “That’s what’s at stake here, isn’t it?” The next day she marched into the tutoring center with an expansive smile on her face and said, “I’ve made friends with math.” From that point on, she excelled in math and I had the pleasure of teaching her College Algebra (she earned an A) and helping her through her teacher education math courses. She truly had made friends with math and it reciprocated by being more friendly with her.

6. ABSORB HOW OTHERS THINK. Similar to number two, join or create a study group that meets daily during the week. Your goal, in addition to contributing all you are able to help your friends, is to be affected (or infected) by how they think about math. Many make the mistake of using group study time to accumulate facts about solving problems and don’t focus on HABITS OF MIND. Listen closely to how others think. You want to have your thinking change to be more like that of another student who is doing well in an area of math. Learn to ask questions like, “What made you think that would work?” and “What did you see in the problem that got you started in that direction?” Look for the categories in which their successful ways of thinking fall. For example, does this student always do well with a particular kind of problem because that kind lends itself well to drawing a diagram? The belief that there is always a pattern and if you look long and deep enough you will find it is another habit of mind, a way of thinking mathematically. Absorbing how others think is a strategy; the next tip should be your approach to all of your learning.

7. PURSUE MASTERY, NOT JUST COMPLETING ASSIGNMENTS. Here’s the secret: the skills it takes to teach something are the identical skills necessary to master it. This is an alignment that is important if you as a nontrad are going to milk this college education for all it is worth. While the traditional students are “getting by” or even “getting good grades,” you are going to master the material. You can wind up with a degree or an education. If you pursue mastery, you will learn on a deeper layer and you will have the skills and insights necessary to apply what you have learned–you will have an education, not merely a degree. So while others are completing the assigned problems, you will work additional problems and analyze what concepts are behind the problems, what categories the problems fall into, what tools you use to solve problems in each of the categories, etc. You will “teach” the math section to see if you understand it well enough to speak it out loud-even if you have to go into the rest room and lock the door to do so in private. When you teach the material out loud, new and different connections are made in your mind and you will gain insights you would never have merely from reading and working problems. Find a way to teach it on a white board or a big piece of paper so new associations will become evident to you as you feel the motion of arrows and lines that connect ideas together. To master it, you will teach it and gain the insights of a teacher.

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