Studying Tips

From the Chair's office (with special thanks and gratitude to Professor Ed Oxford, who has been collecting these valuable tips throughout his 40 years of teaching):

For most of us, mathematics is a difficult, but rewarding, subject to learn. The importance and pervasiveness of mathematics in our increasingly complex society is evident and well-documented. Note what our National Science Foundation predicts: more than 80% of all new jobs created in the United States within the next ten years will require a sophisticated knowledge of mathematics.

Very few students can learn mathematics by observation. It invariably takes a great deal of time, patience, practice, more practice, and even more practice to learn the necessary skills and techniques to succeed. Furthermore, success in this subject demands a strong foundation. For example, it is an absolute prerequisite to master college algebra and trigonometry (the ingredients of Baylor's precalculus course) in order to succeed in calculus.

To do well in mathematics - or, for that matter, any subject - it is essential to develop excellent and efficient study habits. From time to time, we hear the following laments from students "I don't know why I did not do well in the exam because I did all of the homework" or "I did not do well in the exam even though I studied the material for more than 15 hours". Upon closer investigation, we usually find that these students have miscalculated. We are all susceptible to errors of this kind. Earlier this Spring, I thought I had spent three hours working in the yard; in actuality, I was outside less than one hour. But it certainly felt like three hours!

Dr. Charles Weaver, in Baylor's Department of Psychology and Neuroscience, has written an excellent guide, full of very useful studying tips, that is a "must read" for all students. His article, "Simple but Not Easy: Cognitive Principles Underlying Effective Learning", was recently published in the Spring 2012 newsletter of Baylor's Academy of Teaching and Learning. We also highly recommend a recent book (to be published in August 2012 by Princeton University Press), written by Dr. Edward B. Burger and Dr. Michael Starbird, entitled The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking. Dr. Burger is the 2010 winner of Baylor's prestigious Robert Foster Cherry Award for Great Teaching. Lastly, another article that we strongly recommend to all students is entitled "Telling the Truth", written by Steven Zucker of Johns Hopkins University. It deals with problems that students encounter when entering university. As he notes, Zucker says the "biggest difference between high school and college will lie in your math and science courses". Read it and find out why!

Please take advantage of the fact that the Department of Mathematics at Baylor University has excellent teachers who are willing to help students...who seek help. Don't wait until it is too late. And, remember, that we are a results-driven department. Effort, alone, is not enough to pass a class or obtain a desirable grade. In mathematics vernacular, effort is necessary for success but not sufficient.

Comments and Further Helpful Suggestions

  • Cell phones/video games/TV and concentration do not mix! Find a quiet place to work that minimizes interruptions.
  • Many students give up trying to solve a problem if they cannot do it within 10 minutes. Wrong attitude! It is quite normal to take much longer to solve some problems. It is essential to understand the problem. Sometimes, it helps to try and solve a similar, but simpler, problem first.

  • Do not expect all problems on tests and examinations to be similar to assigned homework problems. It is important for students to apply what they have learned in class to solve new problems. A true 'A' student should be defined as someone who can solve such problems and "think outside the box".
  • Calculators vs Thinking: while it is true that "calculators are powerful tools for discovering and understanding concepts", there is no question that there is an over-dependence on calculators from today's students. Basic skills like addition, multiplication, division, and elementary trigonometry, should not require the use of a calculator.
  • You must accept responsibility for reviewing background material needed to learn subject matter. Your instructor may be able to offer helpful suggestions regarding background material.
  • Most learning must occur outside class. In general, you should expect to spend a minimum of two productive hours studying outside class for each scheduled hour of the course.
  • Do not miss class. You are responsible for learning all material you miss as the result of an absence. Under reasonable circumstances, the instructor will try to assist you.
  • Participate in class. Help the instructor create a wholesome learning environment. Ask constructive questions, especially those that may help you and others acquire a better understanding of the subject matter.
  • All solutions to problems should be legibly written and well organized. Keep a structured collection of your solutions for future reference. Use this collection when you are preparing for examinations.
  • Do homework when it is assigned. If you do not understand a concept or method, seek help immediately. The instructor wants to help you learn, but it is your responsibility to seek immediate help when needed.
  • Attentively review all graded papers the instructor returns to the class. Seek help when you do not understand how to make needed corrections. Thoughtful written notes regarding corrections on graded papers can be very helpful as you prepare for subsequent examinations and homework.
  • Before attempting to work homework problems, carefully read your classroom notes that are related to the topic at hand. Also, thoroughly read relevant examples and material given in the textbook.
  • Resist the temptation to look at an answer until you have written a solution.
  • Mathematical reasoning and clear communication are at least as important as computations and numerical answers. For full credit, you should show enough organized work to convince the instructor that you understand relevant concepts.
  • If a written response to a problem is needed, use complete sentences with proper grammar.
  • Properly prepare for all examinations. Review all course material related to the topics that might be covered on the examination, including all homework problems. Try to simulate the testing environment by preparing lists of problems that cover the breadth of the material that might be tested. Then, sit down only with pencil, paper, and a calculator (when allowed) to determine if you can readily work through the problems without any assistance. It is unrealistic to review properly two or three weeks of classroom material in one or two days.
  • Assist other students with learning. Verbalizing subject matter to others frequently enhances learning. Effective verbal and written communication of the course material is a strong indicator of a sound knowledge of the subject matter. You may want to form a study group to assist with this level of learning.
  • Come for help when you need it. You may drop by the instructor's office without an appointment anytime during office hours. You may contact the instructor by email to make an appointment for a time other than an office hour.
  • The mathematics department runs a free "Math Lab" in SR 326 from Monday-Friday each week during our fall and spring semesters. Ask your teacher for specific hours and details. While we always first recommend seeking help from your mathematics teacher, extra help is available in the Math Lab.


Sid Richardson Science Building
1410 S.4th Street
Waco, TX 76706

(254) 710-3561