verbal difficulties in mathematics

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Joined: 16 Jun 2010
Age: 28
Gender: Male
Posts: 282
Location: Oklahoma City

21 Nov 2011, 1:44 am

I'm a math major. I had a 4.0 until this semester, in which I may even get a C in one of my classes. I was hoping that as a mathematics major I would be safe from language getting in the way of my understanding, but I've been having more and more trouble as I have new material to study that I haven't seen before, and the explanations in the book are terrible, imprecise, vague, completely lacking in any attempt at rigor, etc. I go to the library and find books that make more sense, but they are more detailed and take more time to employ because with them I am actually learning and not just memorizing parts of the book pages and dry procedures.

Sometimes I go to study the chapter in the textbook and I can't even read. It doesn't make any sense. A whole paragraph might be wasted on some silly statement about why it is important to learn this material, then many and large steps will be skipped in "proofs" and explanations and replaced with bogus reasons just so that they can sound like they have a reason when they just don't want to include the actual reason because then they'd lose all the people taking the course just for computational reasons, who just want an answer and are not interested in pure math. "Since there are three ways of solving this problem, we'll use the third way." That sort of thing, after which my entire thought process comes to a halt and suddenly everything that came before that point also doesn't make sense, and I feel like I'm being lied to and thus am learning things that are incorrect. But then they'll drop words all over the place that they haven't defined, but which I know have a very precise definition that involves details that are extremely relevent. Or they'll give you a picture or diagram of what something is, and that means nothing in the way of definition. And there is so much of this ambiguity and over symplification that its like its not English. I'm reading words but they have no meaning. Sort of like if you saw your name written but didn't know how to say it and couldn't be sure it was being spelled right.

I've heard its something of an aspegers thing to have a hard time doing something without knowing the reason. I have that Big time. I mostly just shove a bunch of images onto the my mental clipboard before I go into the test so that i pull from visual memory of the book pages, and then once the visual memory has faded its mostly gone. But the things I had the time to work through linearly, sequentially, I remember in great detail.

But I'm wondering if anyone else has had this problem, being great in math but not so great in math at school because of the course/instruction/textbook methods. And any suggestions for approaching this problem.


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Joined: 23 Feb 2005
Age: 29
Gender: Female
Posts: 1,464
Location: Washington, USA

21 Nov 2011, 2:32 am

I wasn't a math major in college (I actually got a BS in psychology lol), but I do know a bit of what you're talking about. I had much difficulty in my algebra 2 classes in high school, mainly because of the teacher's instructions, that and the textbook wasn't very visual. I learn much better by example and by pictures, and most teachers and professors use words. This particular teacher wouldn't work out particular problems on the board for us, saying that they were "too hard" that that we should "work them out on our own", which didn't help me at all. I also wouldn't know why I got certain answers wrong, and I would have to spend much time outside of class trying to understand what the teacher was trying to say. They had a lot of helpful videos online that helped me understand concepts (both from YouTube and the textbook's help page). In college, I'd also have trouble with reading. It wasn't that I couldn't understand things; it was just that there were so many words that I couldn't piece the whole picture/concept together. For my neuropsychology course in college, I got a C in the class and an A in the lab. I think it was because the lab was much more applied than the class was, as we were mainly going off of lecture and texts. I had no problem with the pictures, but when it came to the words I got lost fairly easily (unless the words were in themselves visual, or I understood parts of the concepts already). Sometimes when I'm reading a book, I'll also start wondering the "why" parts of the words. Then I lose track of what the paragraph or chapter was saying entirely. One thing that helped me with this was looking at the outlines first, to understand the point of the chapter. It's easy for us to get lost in a single paragraph/sentence in a very long chapter (or even a short one). Because we think so much about the details and our minds tend to wonder, it's important to get to the point fairly quickly. A highlighter worked wonders for me (although be careful not to highlight too much; that could get SUPER distracting! lol). "Translating" a verbal concept into a visual one also worked wonders for me in terms of understanding/remembering concepts, although it can be hard to translate at first. It might also be good, in your case, to have a study partner who might understand the professor's instructions better. I got a lot of help from academic assistance, and I got accommodations from the university (e.g. being able to test in a separate room). My university had math tutoring during most evenings available to all students, which helped tremendously when I had to take math classes (I had to take math classes to get my BS). I also found it helpful, when seeking help from a tutor or professor, to write down what I really wanted help with, as sometimes I'd get lost trying to "translate" my visual image of what I needed help with into verbal (even now I'm having trouble typing it! lol). Preparing previous homework assignments/problems from the workbook that you have issues with are always a plus, and the tutor will probably thank you for it and they'll probably be more willing to help you/better able to help. I hope this was helpful to you. Good luck in your academic endeavors!

I'm 24 years old and live in WA State. I was diagnosed with Asperger's at 9. I received a BS in Psychology in 2011 and I intend to help people with Autistic Spectrum Disorders, either through research, application, or both. On the ?Pursuit of Aspieness?.


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Joined: 22 Apr 2010
Age: 38
Gender: Female
Posts: 8,655

21 Nov 2011, 3:16 am

I believe I can help you somewhat as it sounds we have similar learning styles and I have been in this situation before.

First of all, which math course is this and which ones will you be taking next semester?

Here is what I recommend.

1. Find out which courses you are taking next semester, and with which instructor.

2. Try to get the syllabus for those courses as taught by that instructor, along with any old homeworks, exams, or sample exams if they are accessible to you without posing a breach of ethics. Sometimes schools have test banks in which this material can be found.

3. Get the textbook early and see if there is a student solution manual for it.

4. If not, find a similar textbook to which a student solution manual is available, and use that as a supplemental.

5. Use the syllabus as a guide to help you determine what topics to review before class. Refrain from reading the book in great detail but to try to work any examples in it just so you will be familiar with them if the instructor goes over them in class.

I'm going to be honest with you though. Mathematics gets pretty horrendous at the upper division level, not because the subject itself becomes more difficult, but because mathematicians punctuate poorly, and the books become almost entirely theoretical with few learnable examples. They cater to those who can construct working models from theories without having to work through problems because were written by those who were able to do so.

Not being able to do so does not mean you can't be a good mathematician, but it is going to make it a lot more difficult to receive a degree in it because you are ultimately trying to learn in an environment which does not accommodate your learning style.

You very likely have an advisor at school, whether you know it or not. You should arrange to speak to them to explorer alternatives to your current major. Have you considered engineering instead? They use math in a much more functional way.