Feeling stuck when trying to solve a problem involving mathematics is a common experience. We might struggle to figure out what the problem is asking, be unsure how to approach it or uncertain that the results we are getting are correct. It is easy to conclude that the problem is impossible to solve, or at very least that we can’t solve it. But what can we do instead?
It is often tempting to avoid tackling a difficult problem altogether. Our schedule might be packed with other activities and responsibilities, and many of them are more urgent or enjoyable than staring at a difficult problem! Maybe we decide to set aside a day or a block of few hours to devote to this problem and put it off until then.
But a much more effective approach is to make a plan, break it down into small, achievable tasks, and spend short amounts of time on this pursuit every day. For example, you could plan to read a few pages of your notes every morning and every evening, or review the solutions of a couple of problems you’ve seen in a tutorial, or make your own revision notes for the specific topics related to your problem. This way, even if you miss some of the times that you’ve planned to spend on it, you will still be making progress overall. Finishing the achievable tasks will also help you build your confidence, and lessen the maths anxiety you might be experiencing.
The first step to solving a maths problem is to understand it. In your courses, the problems on the example sheets could seem unclear. But the problems will be linked to your lectures, lecture notes or reading materials, and being really comfortable with the material in the notes will help you contextualise the problems and figure out what they are asking. You could watch our Better reading for deeper understanding webinar to get an idea how to tackle your written lecture notes or reading materials, or you could make your own notes to aid your revision of the material.
Next, try and find problems similar to the one you are tackling. The first places to look are your lectures, the lecture notes, tutorials or the additional reading materials. Can you find a similar problem to yours that you already know the solution to? Can you amend the solution to solve your problem? If not, which parts are different? Could you use a different technique to solve the parts that differ? Are there any examples that are related to that part of the question?
You may discover that the reason you are finding your problem difficult is because there is additional maths you need to learn or revise. You can find worked examples on our website, or you can find further resources in our Resources Channel in Teams.
We are building a Maths and Statistics Support Team to create a space for students to discuss how to tackle the maths problems together. The weekly drop-in sessions run on Wednesdays between 2 and 4, and you can join by filling in this short form and see how busy they are in the drop-in channel. In the drop-in session you can speak to the maths support tutor directly about a maths problem or your maths learning in general. As well chatting briefly in a drop-in session, you could book a longer maths support appointment. This gives you more time to discuss particular maths problems, maths revision in general, maths anxiety, or additional resources that could aid your learning. So get in touch, and we can help you find a way to solve your maths problems!