Help! I'm stuck!

Here are some things you can do to get unstuck.

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Study Strategies

Here are some general study tips.

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Resources

The college provides a bunch of terrific resources; click on the big link below for a list of particularly useful ones. If you're feeling desperate or out of control, there is free counselling available; click here for more info.

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Things to do if you're stuck

  • Get really frustrated, stomp your feet, and pout. To enhance the effect, roll around on the floor and bang your fists.

  • Try writing down the relevant parts from the lecture or the book in your own words. This will help identify precisely where your confusion lies.

  • Take a break. Do something which is guaranteed to be productive, like eating, or laundry, or physical exercise. Don't come back to the problem for a few hours.

  • Talk it out with someone - preferably another student in the course, but a parent or friend will also do. The point is not to get their feedback, but to force yourself to explain the problem coherently.

  • Shoot an email to me or the TA.

  • Some study strategies

  • Read actively
    • When reading your notes or a textbook, if a page takes you less than 20 minutes, you probably didn't read it actively enough. After each example, after every proof, close your reading and try to reconstruct it from memory. You will probably not be able to. Do not look in the book right away! Instead, think about the example and try to do it yourself, perhaps in a different way than is done in the book. Give yourself some time to think about it, even if it seems you're not making any progress. Note that thinking does not mean spacing out. It is much, much better to try something, even if it seems unlikely to help, than to sit and wish for a solution. No solution drops out of the sky in perfect form; instead, write something wrong first, and then try to tweak it a bit at a time until you force it into a good solution.

  • Generate questions
    • Force yourself to generate questions, both of me and of yourself. For example, one can ask about any potential ambiguity in a definition. (π is the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. But of which circle?) Or one can ask about whether every condition given in a theorem must be there. In other words, if you remove one of the assumptions, is the theorem still true? (Does the intermediate value theorem hold on open intervals?) Etc. There are always questions you can ask. Find them!

  • Review each lecture later the same day
    • The best way to do this is to try to explain to someone what happened in lecture (you don't need to go into gory detail -- just enough to get the point across). A worse, but still OK, alternative is to (actively!) read over your lecture notes.

  • Work a little every day, rather than a lot during one or two days
    • There are several reasons for this. For one thing, there are only so many hours on a given day which can be productively used for creative thought. Second, if you work a little bit every day, you potentially run across conceptual difficulties much earlier. This gives you more chances to talk to me / your TAs / other students. Moreover, this gives more time to reflect on some of the more challenging questions. Also, when you have a whole day ahead of you all devoted to one task, it's easy to fall into the trap of thinking you're not in any rush, and to start procrastinating. By contrast, if you only have an hour or two to work on math, you will automatically be more focused.