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Memories of undergraduate mathematics

By Lara Alcock

Two contrasting experiences stick in mind from my first year at university.

First, I spent a lot of time in lectures that I did not understand. I don’t mean lectures in which I got the general gist but didn’t quite follow the technical details. I mean lectures in which I understood not one thing from the beginning to the end. I still went to all the lectures and wrote everything down – I was a dutiful sort of student – but this was hardly the ideal learning experience.

Second, at the end of the year, I was awarded first class marks. The best thing about this was that later that evening, a friend came up to me in the bar and said, “Hey Lara, I hear you got a first!” and I was rapidly surrounded by other friends offering enthusiastic congratulations. This was a revelation. I had attended the kind of school at which students who did well were derided rather than congratulated. I was delighted to find myself in a place where success was celebrated.

Looking back, I think that the interesting thing about these two experiences is the relationship between the two. How could I have done so well when I understood so little of so many lectures?

I don’t think that there was a problem with me. I didn’t come out at the very top, but obviously I had the ability and dedication to get to grips with the mathematics. Nor do I think that there was a problem with the lecturers. Like the vast majority of the mathematicians I have met since, my lecturers cared about their courses and put considerable effort into giving a logically coherent presentation. Not all were natural entertainers, but there was nothing fundamentally wrong with their teaching.

I now think that the problems were more subtle, and related to two issues in particular.

First, there was a communication gap: the lecturers and I did not understand mathematics in the same way. Mathematicians understand mathematics as a network of axioms, definitions, examples, algorithms, theorems, proofs, and applications.  They present and explain these, hoping that students will appreciate the logic of the ideas and will think about the ways in which they can be combined. I didn’t really know how to learn effectively from lectures on abstract material, and research indicates that I was pretty typical in this respect.

Students arrive at university with a set of expectations about what it means to ‘do mathematics’ – about what kind of information teachers will provide and about what students are supposed to do with it. Some of these expectations work well at school but not at university. Many students need to learn, for instance, to treat definitions as stipulative rather than descriptive, to generate and check their own examples, to interpret logical language in a strict, mathematical way rather than a more flexible, context-influenced way, and to infer logical relationships within and across mathematical proofs. These things are expected, but often they are not explicitly taught.

My second problem was that I didn’t have very good study skills. I wasn’t terrible – I wasn’t lazy, or arrogant, or easily distracted, or unwilling to put in the hours. But I wasn’t very effective in deciding how to spend my study time. In fact, I don’t remember making many conscious decisions about it at all. I would try a question, find it difficult, stare out of the window, become worried, attempt to study some section of my lecture notes instead, fail at that too, and end up discouraged. Again, many students are like this. I have met a few who probably should have postponed university until they were ready to exercise some self-discipline, but most do want to learn.

What they lack is a set of strategies for managing their learning – for deciding how to distribute their time when no-one is checking what they’ve done from one class to the next, and for maintaining momentum when things get difficult. Many could improve their effectiveness by doing simple things like systematically prioritizing study tasks, and developing a routine in which they study particular subjects in particular gaps between lectures.  Again, the responsibility for learning these skills lies primarily with the student.

Personally, I never got to a point where I understood every lecture. But I learned how to make sense of abstract material, I developed strategies for studying effectively, and I maintained my first class marks. What I would now say to current students is this: take charge. Find out what lecturers and tutors are expecting, and take opportunities to learn about good study habits. Students who do that should find, like I did, that undergraduate mathematics is challenging, but a pleasure to learn.

Lara Alcock is a Senior Lecturer in the Mathematics Education Centre at Loughborough University. She has taught both mathematics and mathematics education to undergraduates and postgraduates in the UK and the US. She conducts research on the ways in which undergraduates and mathematicians learn and think about mathematics, and she was recently awarded the Selden Prize for Research in Undergraduate Mathematics Education. She is the author of How to Study for a Mathematics Degree (2012, UK) and How to Study as a Mathematics Major (2013, US).

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Image credit: Screenshot of Oxford English Dictionary definition of mathematics, n., via OED Online. All rights reserved.

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