There is an assumption that computer scientists are math geniuses. That assumption is true and false–a binary argument, if you will. Once you earn a computer science degree, you will be a decent mathematician. Many CS majors minor in mathematics because they know the material so well. However, many of us suck at math in the beginning
Most of us aren’t Taraji B. Henson in Hidden Figures or Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting. You know the drill: a shy person who typically garners little attention approaches a chalkboard and blows everyone away with their math superpowers.
That’s not realistic for most people, including very smart computer scientists.
The rest of us regular folk study hard to get there. Trust me when I say that anyone can get there. I had an abysmal score on my math placement test and got there. I really, truly mean if I can do it, anyone can. Because I’m naturally bad at math. Here’s how I did it:
Tip 1: Be honest about your math skills. One of the biggest mistakes you can make is taking a course that is not compatible with your current skill level. Taking a class below your skill level will bore you and it’s a waste of money. Taking a class above your skill level will discourage you and you could wind up repeating the course.
If you’re taking a placement test, I recommend refreshing your memory with concepts you already know or knew at one time. Don’t cram new material. Cramming will result in inflated results that don’t match your actual skill level.
While it may feel discouraging placing into a lower level math course, beginning your journey from the correct place will benefit every other math course you take throughout your degree.
Tip 2: Don’t procrastinate. When starting a math course, dive in on day 1. Work ahead, if possible. You never want to wind up cramming the material the day before a big test. Even if you pass, you really won’t comprehend the material and that will come back to haunt you in higher level courses. Remember that math builds upon itself. Sleepwalking through a low-level Algebra class will hurt you in Calculus.
Tip 3: Don’t focus on the bigger picture. Math has a way of sneaking up on you. You start with simple equations and before you know it, x’s, y’s, symbols and imaginary numbers are thrown in. You might see complicated-looking problems and think, “That looks hard. I could never do that.”
Imagine if I told you to run 10 blocks. You might think you can’t run 10 blocks, but you know you can run 1 block. So try running 1 block, then run 1 block again–repeating this 10 times, you’ve run 10 blocks.
Truth is, that complicated math problems are just several small problems thrown together. Instead of looking at the big picture and feeling overwhelmed, focus on the individual steps.
I take one look at the overall problem so I understand what is being asked and the destination of the problem. Then I take a step back and whittle away at the little problems. Ask yourself what you can do to make it simpler, what operations you can perform that start breaking it down. Go with what you know, review your material if you get stuck, and keep heading toward that destination
Tip 4: Use YouTube as a learning tool. You could have the most amazing professor in the world and still find yourself scratching your head over pesky math problems. Every math student runs into something that just doesn’t click in their mind. When that happens, find a good YouTube tutorial video.
For lower level Algebra, no one beats Dr. Edward Burger. I can’t recommend him enough. He does cover higher level math, but those videos are more difficult to find.
Videos from the patrickJMT channel are also great.
Tip 5: Take advantage of free tutoring. Most, maybe all, colleges provide free tutoring for students. Don’t hesitate to reach out if you’re struggling. I never thought I’d wind up in a tutoring center, but College Trigonometry changed my tune. I was stuck and no amount of YouTubing could help.
I was overwhelmed the first time I got tutored. I expected my tutor to give me the answer and send me on my way. He made me work through the problem–logically, mathematically, painfully–but I got through it. I just needed someone who knew the material guiding me in the right direction and nudging me when I got off course.
Tip 6: Do math. This is the most important part of succeeding in math. You could follow every tip I’ve given you, but if you don’t practice math, then you won’t succeed. The only way to learn math is to practice it like you would any discipline. You won’t wail on a guitar like Jimi Hendrix if you only practice the day before a big gig. Math is no different.
The only way to learn math is to practice it like you would any discipline. You won’t wail on a guitar like Jimi Hendrix if you only practice the day before a big gig. Math is no different.
Computer Science requires math through Calculus II and/or advanced Discrete Mathematics. I tested into Elementary Algebra. I earned a B in that class and A’s in every math course since. I’m not a “natural” at math and there are times I want to throw my book through a window. Be kind to yourself. Allow yourself breaks (this is where working ahead helps) and come back to your work with fresh eyes.
Remember that no one was born knowing math and everyone climbs that mountain one step at a time.