Math Questions- What to do if you read a question and just don't get it.

Maybe you are familiar with that sinking, freezing feeling that happens when you read a math question and have no idea how to solve it or even what to do next. This can be a paralyzing and panicky feeling, and, in the worst case scenario, can make you decide that you can't do math, or that you don't want to do math, or that math is too hard.

As a mathematician (which you now are, since you are doing math), you need to recognize this feeling, and come up with some strategies that you can use to move forward on the problem, even when you are paralysed and panicked. If you practice these strategies enough, you will be able to use them automatically.

It's similar to practicing what to do in an emergency boating accident before the emergency happens. If you practice enough before the boating emergency happens, you can do the right thing at the time of the emergency, despite your feelings of paralysis and panic. This is much better than jumping in the water, or going down with the boat.

Here are some questions you can use to help you get moving in the right direction when you are stuck on a math question. If you practice asking yourself these questions when you are doing questions you know, you'll find it easier to follow the same steps when you are feeling intimidated or stuck.

Questions to ask yourself when working on a math problem

Do you feel panicked?
Do you feel like you don't know what is going on?

If yes, which of the following applies?

-You read the question and your mind goes blank
-You don't understand some of the words in the problem.
-You don't understand what the question is asking you to do.
-You have some idea of what the question is asking you to do, but you don't know how to do it.
-You have some idea of what the question is asking you to do, but you don't have a first step, or know how to start.

If your mind goes blank when you read the question, try simply reading the question through several times, to get past your initial panicky feelings. You may also be having this difficulty because you are getting stuck on words that you aren't familiar with. In that case, see the next suggestion.

If you don't understand some of the words in the problem, try to re-read previous sections in the course to see if they are explained there. If they aren't or you can't find them, ask someone- a professor, or student- to point you in the right direction or explain the words to you. This is part of being a strong and pro-active student.

In the last three cases (you don't understand what the question is asking you to do, you have some idea of what the question is asking you to do, but you don't know how to do it, you have some idea of what the question is asking you to do, but you don't have a first step, or know how to start) you can try one of the following strategies:

Make a diagram or draw a picture
Make a list of facts or known information
Make a table or a chart of know information
Make a list of questions that you want to answer
Make a list of unknowns- facts that you don't yet know.

Often this will help you get moving when you are stuck. You can also try looking for similar problems in sections of the course to see how they are solved. And again, once you have tried these strategies, you can ask someone else to point you in the right direction.


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Copyright Jen Schellinck, 2006