Some math study tips

bobby fischer playing chessMath is really hard. Math is so difficult and esoteric only an insanely small group of socially-stunted geniuses would ever want to go any further than Algebra II.

I believed that for a long time.

Then I started studying for the CFA Level I exam. As you might expect for a financial designation the curriculum contains a fair bit of number crunching. As I studied I began to realize it wasn’t so much that math was hard as I had really lousy math teachers in high school. See, I was (and still am) wired up as an English major. Numbers don’t come naturally to me. I look at a formula for the first time and those silly Greek letters might as well be Elvish. You would think at some point in my elementary/middle/high school career someone would have sat me down and helped me learn better strategies for studying math that, you know, actually fit my learning style. But that never happened.

Chances are if you are another “humanities person” you have similar issues with math. The problem with that is math is quite useful. Particularly if you’re looking to advance your career. It’s also pretty important in daily life, if, for example, you want to understand how your mortgage works. Or more generally to keep from ending up like this guy.

Here are some math study tips that worked for me:

  • Do not skim read. I am used to reading fiction and non-fiction. This doesn’t require deep reading. Skimming works just fine when you’re cobbling some bullshit about Jane Eyre together at the last minute because you’d rather spend Wednesday nights at the bar than in the library. This absolutely WILL NOT work with a math-intensive text. You really need to take your time. Read and understand EACH and EVERY sentence before moving on.
  • Do all example problems. Try solving examples without looking at the solution if possible. Go back to the preceding text if necessary. DO NOT move on to the next concept till you understand the solution.
  • Summarize in your own words. Try to summarize each section of the text in your own words. Then re-read that section to make sure you got it right. This is an automatic check that will help keep you from skimming the text and is especially useful if you are studying after work when your eyes will take any excuse to go glassy on you. Personally I like to write little sarcastic jokes in my notes sometimes. Experts say if you can make an intelligent joke about something it means you’ve mastered the concept. It’s also a good way to vent any lingering frustration. This works well with formulas, too (see below).
  • If you’re having trouble with a particular formula, try writing the process out in words. This was a HUGE help to me. It’s how I mastered some of the more tedious calculations in the Quantitative Methods unit of a CFA Level I Curriculum, like calculating portfolio variance from a table of returns or calculating the payoff on a forward rate agreement or any number of applications of the no-arbitrage forward rate equation. Not only did this help me “get” some really important concepts, but it’s also helped me get much more comfortable with mathematical notation.
  • Ask the internet. If all else fails, try googling the concept you’re struggling with. I don’t find sites like Wikipedia very helpful, but you will occasionally find some forums with really good, plain-English explanations. CFA candidates might find the 300 Hours Forum particularly helpful. Khan Academy is also a fantastic resource.

I will conclude by offering another piece of general advice: if you really struggle with something for a very long time and just can’t seem to “get it,” take a break. Watch a stupid TV show with no redeeming intellectual value (Teen Mom works great). Grab a beer with friends. Go work out. Do anything other than study.

I remember being about 10 years old playing Super Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back trying over and over to beat the swamp monster boss on the Dagobah level. The whole level sucks major ass and the boss fight is no exception. I was about ready to put a fist through the basement TV when I decided it was time for a break. When I tried again the next day I took the bastard down on the first try.

super star wars dagobah boss

Get. Fucked.

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