Problems With Algebra

Ten years ago, I was in school to become a school counselor. One of the prerequisites for the program was Statistics and Probability. The problem was that I had only taken Algebra I and Geometry in high school and no math in college while getting a BA and an MFA at the University of California. Yes, in those days you could get a degree without a math class depending on your major. I looked at the math classes at the community college and didn’t know where to start to become ready for Statistics. I wondered if I should start with Pre-Algebra, then take Beginning Algebra and follow it with Intermediate Algebra. I figured that would take forever. I called a friend who teaches math at a community college and she told me to take Intermediate Algebra to polish up my skills.

I was concerned that my math skills were not good enough to test into the class at the community college so I decided to take it at the university I was at by asking to add the class. I attended the class on the first day. The instructor had each student introduce themselves and share what the last class they had taken was. Then he lectured on the first lesson of which I understood little. Afterward, I asked the professor if he would sign for me to take the class. He signed for me but said “Don’t blame me if you fail!”

I went over to my parents house after the class quite upset. I told them that I was afraid I was going to blow my whole program on the prerequisite to a prerequisite. Both of my parents told me to go get the book for the class and my dad said he would tutor me. I did as they said and held my breath. My dad was able to help me with the first assignment and pretty soon I was doing okay. I would write down my questions and my dad would help me. I was meticulous in doing the assignments and made sure that I either understood it or got help.

My class was filled with undergrads who were in this remedial class because they were not ready for college math and I was in the same boat. Some of them were taking the class for the second time. Before too long students were missing class and others said that they couldn’t understand the teacher because he had an accent. He did have an accent but he was always willing to explain things further when a student asked.

When the first test loomed I was in a panic. My school counseling program took a lot of time and I also had a family to take care of. I had not had time to study plus I didn’t really know how to study for math. I called my dad and he told me to come over to the house and he would help me. I only had two hours before I needed to leave for the class. My dad had me go to the back of the chapters and I worked every other chapter review problem with him sitting there to help me remember what to do. I didn’t have time to work all of them and my dad thought that every other one would cover it. It did.

I proceeded through the course in this manner. As I remember there were four tests; two quizzes, a midterm and a final. After the first test, I studied by working all of the homework problems over again. I would start about a day and a half or two days before the test. Sometimes I would get up at 4:30 a m and sit on the floor near my bathtub and just work problems. It gave me a very good feeling to walk into a test knowing that I knew how to solve the problems. When there were formulas to be used, I would write them down as soon as the papers were handed out and then I didn’t have to stress about remembering them. There was the quadratic formula, the slope intercept form, and the point slope formula among others.

I had a lot of anxiety when taking tests so in addition to writing down the formulas at the beginning I would use the scratch sheet to cover all of the problems on a page except the one I was working on. I always looked to solve the problems that I immediately knew how to solve and then would go the others. When dealing with a word problem I found that it was helpful to write down the information that was given. Often just doing that would cause something in my head to click in figuring out how to solve the problem.

Very quickly on, it became clear to me that I made simple mistakes with multiplication and division and with negative and positive numbers. This was a serious problem because in college the answer has to be right or you get no credit. The professors do not give partial credit because you solved it correctly but made an arithmetic mistake. I learned to spend time at the end of the test just going through and checking my answers.

The class was pass/not pass, but if there had been a letter grade I’m pretty sure I would have gotten an A. On the last day following the final I went up to the teacher with a thank you card. It was something that I did in all of my classes because I was very grateful to all of my teachers. When I handed my math teacher the card, he looked at me and a look of embarrassment fell across his face. I know that he was thinking of the comment he made to me on the very first day. He said to me in his accent, “You did very well!”

I wrote up a sheet on how to do well in Algebra and I now give it out to my students. Sometimes, I tell the story of how it came to be written. I have included it in the post that follows. I tell students that with math because it is sequential, they have to hit the ground with their feet running and that if they don’t understand the homework they must be on a mission to find someone to help them…daily!


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