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Overcoming discouragement in mathematics

  1. Jul 16, 2011 #1
    Until this summer, I've never experienced disappointing results in a mathematics course. I've had poor performance on a couple tests here and there, but I've always been able to recover and eventually earn an A for the semester. But I'm afraid my streak is about to end.

    This summer session I enrolled in Advanced Calculus/Intro Real Analysis. This is the first time in my life where unlimited studying does not guarantee myself an A. I go into an exam my usual confident self, only to return home discouraged and depressed. I know this is not healthy, but I've never had to deal with the fact that I'm actually not as smart as I think I am. All I can think about is how badly a B in real analysis will affect my chances of admission to a decent graduate program, regardless of whether the course was taken in the summer, when the course is much harder since time is short. I know these thoughts are irrational, I'll have plenty of chances to redeem myself in higher-level courses, but still, the feeling is compulsive. I can't shake it.

    Has anyone else had to deal with similar experiences? How do I find motivation again when my single best motivator (success) appears so elusive? While I enjoy math more than anything else, I can't honestly say that I study hard because I like it. No, I study hard because I like getting A's. And now, studying hard guarantees nothing. So I've been trying to tell myself that it's time to study simply because you enjoy the material and want to understand it. This makes me feel better for a little while. The rational side of my brain calms down and tells me I'll be fine, that I'll still be able to achieve all my math dreams as long as I just keep working hard....then that idea fades and I'm just depressed/discouraged again.

    I know a lot of people might read this and say, "haha get over yourself, welcome to the club". I understand my thoughts are irrational, but the FEELING is compulsive. So other than the obvious answer (humble yourself and continue working hard), how do you overcome discouragement in mathematics?
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 16, 2011 #2
    Getting a B in Real Analysis is something to be proud of. It's a VERY difficult course and even with a B you'll probably be one of the top in your class. Don't worry about ONE poor grade (though it's still a B, which is good) decreasing your chances at a top graduate school. Real Analysis is a very difficult topic at first and like I have said, a B really isn't a bad mark.

    To overcome the discouragement you just need to channel that into studying rage (at least that's what I do). I flubbed on a linear algebra quiz last semester and got 3/20 on it.. I raged pretty hard and after about a week I had mastered the particular topic I did so poorly on. I used that rage and channeled it towards more intense studying, I asked for help, I did extra problems, I used various resources to my advantage and by the end of it I was extremely confident in my knowledge.

    TBH, yes a lot of people are going to think "wow wtf is your problem, you got a B!! Many people would KILL to get a grade that high!", and while I realize you are set on getting into a top graduate school you also need to realize that one mark doesn't decide your fate.
  4. Jul 16, 2011 #3
    Don't think about it, just do it. Thats how I overcome it. Studying math is about suffering, the pleasure comes from languishing on a problem and then getting to write up an elegant well-writen proof. I have done mediocre/poor on a number of tests but have always been able to claw my way back up tooth and nail and have yet to end up with anything less than an A-.

    Its very important you learn to control your thoughts, I cant emphasize that enough. Your thoughts aren't irrational, they're just not helpful, you may not be able to achieve your math dreams, and you don't have to be ok with that. You've decided you want to get into a top graduate school and thats where you end it, any more thoughts come your way and you just thought-stop that **** and get back to work slacker!
  5. Jul 16, 2011 #4
    Hi diligence,

    Your thoughts seem pretty rational to me. Sorry to hear about what you are enduring. Unfortunately I know the feeling all to well, which is why I decided to respond to your post. I kissed my 4.0 goodbye two semesters ago, and I think part of the reason losing the perfect GPA is so traumatic is you know that no matter how hard you try, you will never get a 4.0 again. I earned another "B" last semester and am still a little despondent about it--I just don't feel like a "great student" no matter how hard I try. So I am not focusing on that anymore, I mean sure I still put forth my effort to get A's and I don't want my GPA to get any lower, but I know that I have to do other things to make myself more marketable...research, excellent GRE scores, publications, etc. Stay focused on making A's from here on out, but also make sure you master the other things and add as much "fluff" to yourself as possible.

    I think the best encouragement you can possibly get is from someone who made it into a great grad school with a less than perfect GPA. The best advice I can give is to see where things went wrong, if studying was not helping, maybe something else would have benefited you...did you seek help? Maybe this experience will help you to know when to ask for assistance. I understand how it is being able to study your way through things all of the time--particularly if you went through school for years not really learning anything new. Thing is, it is not that you are not "smart enough" now, you are just learning something new and different. Remember how you learned all of the great things you learned in the past and how you managed learning them--you were not less smart before you learned them, they were just new to you.

    Chin up! You will make it through this :)
  6. Jul 16, 2011 #5


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    You seem to be overlooking the relevant question -- did you learn the subject?
  7. Jul 16, 2011 #6
    First off, real analysis is the most difficult undergraduate math course. Getting a "B" means you did really well. Sometimes you just need time for concepts or problem solving techniques to "sink in", and maybe this summer course is too fast. After I took Calc 2 in the summer, I realized that sometimes no matter how much I study, there is just a certain time frame for me to finally get the hang of a certain topic.

    Have you tried working with others in your class? Lots of times when I have done this I have seen how others solve/prove things differently than me, and it just gives you more tools to work with. Definitely get a study group if you havent...
  8. Jul 17, 2011 #7
    I don't think you should worry about a B. I understand your discouragement completely, but you just have to move on and promise yourself that you will work even harder the next time. I know kids who got perfect scores on the Math SAT and get Cs in college now at top universities. Fundamentally college grades are not like high school grades. Instead of competing against everyone, you are only competing against other top students. So getting a B in a class with only top students is very good.
  9. Jul 17, 2011 #8
    I think that the standard letter grading system can suck for Math and Science majors. Sometimes getting a B isn't a failure of intellect or effort, but an inability to fully grasp a concept before the test date arrives. Don't be too hard on yourself-- have a pity party that involves lots of chocolate, go into an afternoon long sugar coma-- and then get back down to the mathematics. Do not treat this wall as a anything but an obstacle. If you have made it to Real Analysis and higher level Calc class you can overcome whatever block you are having. Best wishes.
  10. Jul 17, 2011 #9
    This is really a great point and great post moa_osen!
  11. Jul 17, 2011 #10
    Yeah, it's a good point, but it's not exclusive to Math and Science majors, it holds for all undergrads. An English major could just as well write a better essay a month after he was supposed to.
  12. Jul 17, 2011 #11
    true lol
  13. Jul 17, 2011 #12
    I think if the English major's writing improved in a month, it might be a coincidence. Generally in English classes, the complaint is often that people find they're doing roughly the same throughout. It's because writing is graded holistically, and maturity is a huge factor. That improves generally over longer periods of time - even the English teachers usually say so.

    Whereas for math, if a concept really clicks in a few key ways, which can happen within a week, it can make a night and day difference on the exam. I think the same holds for any exam testing specific application of conceptualizing ideas.

    Basically, my point is it's probably much more common for that click to happen within a 1 month period in a mathematical field.
  14. Jul 17, 2011 #13
    On the other hand, you can easily cram for some courses in 3 days without doing any work during the term. So for those, the "click" could happen within an even shorter time period :wink: I get what you're saying, it's just that I don't think "the standard letter grading system" sucks for Math and Science majors any more than it does for others.
  15. Jul 18, 2011 #14
    I guess if by standard letter-grading, you mean the fact that people get A's and B's and C's, then I agree.

    But certain things do distinctly suck more for a subject like math - like what I detailed above.

    On the flip side, for a major like English, the letter grading system sucks equally badly, because it's generally especially hard to go from a B on the first essay to an A on the second one, just a month later, because it usually is graded holistically, and all the reasons I gave above.

    I think for majors that are more facts-based, rather than based on performance as much, the grading system works best. I know you were joking about the majors where a "click" can happen in a shorter period, but if someone hasn't studied the material properly before the exam for subjects where the click doesn't really take long to happen, then it's really nobody else to blame.

    The difference with a subject like math (which I have personally experienced) is that you're far less in control of when things actually click. You can study, practice, etc, and that gets you so far - but once things click, you're simply more perceptive when it comes to that topic. If taking a course, that can be invaluable.

    I'll give an example - when I studied calculus some time ago, I found writing proofs involving limits very unnatural. I really tried. I studied the examples, thought about it on my own, did all that I usually do now. But it didn't work. Yet, after when I
    was examined on that stuff, it started clicking - when I started
    really getting calculus better.

    It sucks to be judged based on a system that looks only at where your understanding is at a rigid point in time....especially in a subject where that level of understanding is rapidly changing at unpredictable times.

    I feel for a subject like English, at least you know where you are a bit more certainly, although there is unpredictability there too.
    Last edited: Jul 18, 2011
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