Longtime PickTheBrain reader Marc recently contacted me with the following request:
Hi John. Just wondering if you’re going to post any articles on the importance of quantitative reasoning or perhaps tips on studying math – much like your articles on reading and writing. I think it would be a great idea.
I completely agree. Actually, I’m surprised that we’ve never covered this area before. As a former engineering student, I’ve been through my share of difficult quantitative courses. Although they require many of the same skills as qualitative learning, there are few strategies that don’t overlap.
Get Comfortable With Your Formulas
The surest path to failure on a math or science exam is not knowing the important formulas. If you don’t have these relationships memorized, you can’t solve basic problems or understand the big picture.
For higher level math, physics, and finance courses, the number of formulas you need to know can be overwhelming. The key to excelling in these situations is putting in the time and effort from the very beginning. If you start memorizing formulas from day one, you’ll barely need to study come exam time.
Start off by keeping a special section of your notebook specifically for formulas. As you learn new ones, write them down. Review your formula list as often as possible, at least a few times a week. You don’t need to spend a lot of time — it’s more important to review frequently. The idea is to build familiarity.
Problems, Problems, Problems
Success in most math and science courses comes down to your ability to do problems. The first key to success is knowing all the important formulas. The second is knowing the different tricks and wrinkles used in different types of problems.
They only way to get this knowledge is experience. You need to do as many problems as possible so you know what to expect on the exam and don’t get fooled. Try not to slack on problem sets during the year by “collaborating” too much or taking shortcuts. If you run into a problem you can’t solve, reach out to your TA’s, professors, or fellow students.
You’ll also find that memorizing important formulas and working through problems will improve your understanding of the broader concepts and how they fit together.
Although the examples in this post focus on academic success, the same concepts apply to all quantitative learning. By recording important formulas into one file or notebook, thoroughly memorizing them, and applying this knowledge to problem solving, you’ll be able to understand extremely difficult concepts — provided you put in the time.
See also: Raise Your GPA