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Journal: Why High School didn't Prepare me for University Math

Journal by Capt. Cooley
Before college math teaches a specific number of problems and how to solve them, the mathematical tools (the theorems, definitions, etc) are incidental to the lesson and don't get much class time devoted to just understanding how they work. Most theorems are broken down to one equation that is memorized for tests. College math, on the other hand, teaches a set of tools and how and when to use them. Logically this makes sense. High schools are designed to produce factory workers that solve the same problems over and over according to a set formula, while universities are designed to produce researchers who push the boundaries of mathematical tools, and solving specific problems is incidental. General solutions are favored over specific solutions in mathematics, while the opposite is true in business. (General solutions aren't despised by businesses, obviously, but the focus is on solving the problem in front of you now as opposed to solving every permutation of the problem that exists.)

Unfortunately, I'm finding the transition painful. My father overuses the phrase 'paradigm shift' to the point of criminality, but in this case it really is applicable. Every math class and lesson I've had prior to college has been problem oriented, where I would learn to solve up to 20-30 types of problems and practice until I'd achieved a roughly 90% accuracy for fast solutions. Since coming to UCI, however, the classes are focused on the tools of math, the theorems, to the point of alarm for me.

To put it simply, I'm lost. I've been trained to pick out problems and their solutions, and now I need to learn to pick out tools and how to use them. And this is just in class. Now, instead of simply grinding math problems, the only way to study math before university, I have to think about the limitations of different theorems and definitions and what kinds of problems they would apply to. I see myself using a lot of index cards in the future to make a database of math tools to study and learn. Expect to see me carry them with me at all times, like my science pen. :P

Learning to learn is always the first step to becoming truly educated. Sadly, I've learned to learn in a way that isn't optimum for my environment. I think the situation is comparable to adult illiteracy. Learning to navigate life without reading is hard, but then actually learning to read is a shock, and difficult.

The only positive in this whole mess is that now I've identified exactly why my GPA is hovering below a 3.0, and not the 4.0 I'd expected. This isn't going to stop me from making excuses to my parents, of course. My grades aren't going to improve overnight, and probably not until late summer or fall at the earliest. Then I should see a bountiful harvest of A's that is actually worth writing home about. Also to be found at

APL is a write-only language. I can write programs in APL, but I can't read any of them. -- Roy Keir