Mathematical Ability: It’s in Your Control

If you are looking for a sure-fire way to increase your chances of academic and career success, taking more math than is required, at every level, starting in high school, should be your number one strategy. Taking more than the minimum math requirements for admission to a university program, and taking more than the minimum math requirements for any degree will pay off big-time no matter what program you choose to pursue. If this strategy gives you qualms because you doubt your mathematical ability, you may need to question your assumptions.

The idea that mathematical ability is a fixed talent is entrenched in North American culture with very unfortunate consequences. Many students, at the first hint of a struggle, convince themselves that they are not good enough at math to pursue it beyond a very basic level. In other cultures, mathematical ability is seen as malleable: not a gift, but the reward of hard work. To a large extent, both attitudes are self-fulfilling prophecies.

Achieving fluency in mathematics is not easy and requires lots of practice; most students in high school and university are simply not giving mathematics enough time. Before deciding that you are not up to the challenge of a higher level math course, double or even triple the time you spend on it; I guarantee you will start to feel a lot smarter. Try doing extra practice problems, reading the textbook before class, asking questions in class and attempting homework assignments well before they are due. Solidify your understanding of a mathematical concept by trying to teach it to someone else; this could mean tutoring a student in a lower grade or helping a peer. Treat tests and mistakes as learning experiences; make sure you understand where you went wrong. Mathematics builds; don’t settle for a shaky foundation.

Take additional math courses in high school whenever you have the opportunity; the extra time you invest will improve your fluency and increase your confidence. Investigate other options to supplement any deficiencies in your high school curriculum; a basic understanding of differential and integral calculus as well as one introductory course in linear algebra (taken online if necessary) will set you up for success in university. It is always a good idea to approach a transition from a position of strength; if material in first year university math courses is somewhat familiar, this will be an advantage since university courses move more quickly than those in high school.

Many high school and university students give up on mathematics because they are convinced that they are not mathematically “gifted” and they are afraid to risk failure. The real risk is in not trying. Don’t limit your opportunity for academic and career success by buying into the myth that mathematical ability is static. Every additional math course you take and every additional hour you spend on this skill is, quite literally, money in the bank.


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