How I went from an F to a B in engineering maths | Top Universities

How I went from an F to a B in engineering maths

By Nthatisi H

Updated March 21, 2022 Updated March 21, 2022

When I started engineering maths, I was an F student. I had no idea what I was doing, and every assignment felt like an insurmountable challenge, but I didn't give up. 

It took a lot of hard work, but I'm proud to say that I went from an F to a B in my engineering maths class and now that I've proven to myself that I can do it, there's nothing stopping me from excelling in all my other classes too. 

If you’re struggling with engineering maths or you’re worried about starting, maybe I can help.  

What I found difficult about engineering maths 

My high school didn't offer a rigorous mathematics curriculum so when I decided to study engineering, I knew that I would have to face my demons and take on engineering maths. But every day in class, I would feel more and more overwhelmed. The concepts were so difficult for me to grasp and to make matters worse, my classmates were excelling like they had been doing this for years. Me? I was clueless. 

The reason for my struggle was that I lacked the required prerequisites because I didn't have a strong foundation in basic algebra and trigonometry to understand what was being taught. I knew that if I wanted to get a good grade, I would have to put in the extra effort outside of class. 

How I improved my grades 

There were two main things that I did to improve my grades. First, I had to rule out the common myths about maths that were holding me back. I used to think that: 

  • Some people are naturally good at maths, they have a gift and some don't. 

  • Maths is all about being fast with numbers. 

  • Maths was all about memorising formulas and getting the right answer. 

I was wrong. Anyone can be good at maths if they put in the time and effort. I also found that being slow and taking my time to understand the concepts was more beneficial than working fast. Laurent Schwartz is an excellent example of a slow and good mathematician. He won the Fields medal, which is like winning an Oscar in maths, but always struggled in school because his class prioritised speed.  

Second, I practised problems to improve my understanding and problem-solving skills, rather than trying to memorise formulas I didn’t quite get.  

I started doing a few problems from my textbook and searching online for additional practice problems. Once I had a set to work through, I tried to complete them without looking at the answers. 

I also used online resources to supplement my learning. Khan Academy was a lifesaver for helpful video tutorials, which were ideal for me because I could pause, rewind and watch as many times as I needed.  

Making the most of my tutors 

Like most professors, mine offered drop-in sessions where I could visit their office and ask any questions I had. Honestly, I was embarrassed to go at first because I thought that I’d be judged for being bad at maths, but I quickly realised that everyone in the room was there for the same reason, to get help. 

My professor was more than happy to answer my questions and help me to understand the concepts. As a bonus, I got to know my professor better and he got to understand me and a bit more too. This connection helped me to feel more comfortable in class and showed my professor that I was willing to put in the extra effort to do well.  

Finding the motivation to keep studying 

I used to think that intelligence was fixed. I thought that some people were born smart and some people weren't. Since I wasn't born smart, I thought there was nothing that I could do to change that, but that's not true. 

In her book Mindset, Carol Dweck talks about the power of having a growth mindset, i.e. believing that you can improve your skills and abilities through effort. Dweck suggests that a growth mindset is essential for success in life as it leads to greater motivation, resilience in the face of setbacks, and improved performance. I learned a lot from the book and have taken that mindset into my work.  

Now I know that learning engineering maths entails getting answers wrong over and over again and the successful students are not the ones who never make mistakes. They are the ones who make mistakes and learn from them, then keep going. Whenever I felt like giving up, I reminded myself that every mistake is an opportunity to learn and grow. That helped me to stay motivated. 

Three tips for acing engineering maths 

If you're struggling with engineering maths, here are a few tips that might help you: 

1. Be flexible with problem solving 

There is no one way to solve maths problems. If you don't understand how the teacher is solving a problem, don't be afraid to ask yourself and others "what are the other ways to solve this problem?" 

When I was taking calculus, my teacher showed us how to find the derivative of a function using the chain rule, but there are other ways to find the derivative of a function like using the product rule or quotient rule.  

2. Engage in mathematical reasoning 

Many people think of maths as a solitary activity, but collaboration and talking about maths together is critical in your learning. It allows you to apply reasoning, which is when you explain how you came to your decisions and why you made the choices you did.  

My maths class was divided into sub-groups and each group had a tutorial to review what we had learned in class. The goal was for us to solve problems together. If your school does not offer sub-group tutorial lessons, form a small group with your other classmates and work on problems together. Talking gives access to understanding. 

3. Attend every lecture and do your homework 

This one is pretty straightforward. If you want to do well in maths, you need to attend every one of your lectures and always do your homework on time. I cannot stress this enough. To learn the material, you need to be actively engaged in the learning process.  

Engineering maths is more than a subject of equations and formulas. It teaches you how to reason and use maths creatively and collaboratively. I encourage you to view maths as a creative activity.  

 

In the end, I was able to raise my grade from an F to a B and I know that I can do even better if I continue to put in the extra effort. If you're struggling in maths, don't give up. You can be good at maths if you put in the effort. Most importantly, don't believe the myths and get OK with making mistakes. You’ll get there.  

This article was originally published in March 2022 .

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