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How to Learn College Algebra for Adults Going Back to School

by Shandi Stevenson

To many adults returning to school, college algebra can seem like one of the most daunting obstacles they face. Some have bad memories of struggling with algebra in high school, while most find that even a short break from regular practice makes their algebra feel rusty. But with the maturity and determination older students bring to their education comes the resourcefulness and commitment that can make success in college algebra surprisingly painless.

Back to Basics

First, review arithmetic and basic algebra to regain your grasp of the fundamentals you may not have used in awhile. Don't be embarrassed or intimidated to go back as far as necessary to refresh your memory. Most adults returning to college will need to review concepts such as factoring, adding and subtracting fractions and others before going on to review basic algebra. It's critical to go back as far as you need to, and spend as much time as you need to, to feel confident moving forward. Time spent on review is time well spent and will greatly reduce the time and frustration you spend on more advanced concepts as they come along. It will also help you to recognize the many connections between arithmetic and algebra.

Get Help

One advantage older students have over many college freshmen is that they have gained both the motivation and the maturity to ask for help when they need it. Ask questions in class whenever you don't understand something, and don't hesitate to give your instructor honest feedback when he or she asks the class if something has been understood. Most importantly, find out where your instructor's office is and when his or her office hours are, and show up frequently to get help with your homework or clarification on the concepts introduced in class.

Do It Your Way

Everyone has a different way of learning new skills and concepts, especially when it comes to math. One advantage you have as an adult learner is that you have probably learned what works best for you. Some people learn algebra most quickly by memorizing steps, others by first understanding the abstract concepts involved. Some people rely heavily on example problems, others on verbal explanations or on visuals and diagrams. Not every teacher, textbook or approach will speak your language -- and that's okay. You don't have to spend many frustrated hours trying to grasp a concept exactly the way your textbook presents it or the way your instructor explains it. There are books, websites, and tutors to suit every learning style, so find the ones that click with you. Once you have a "light bulb moment" with the help of your supplemental resource, you will probably find that you can return to your textbook or class with fresh insight.

Do the Postmortem

There is nothing more frustrating than working a page full of problems, reviewing your incorrect answers, and still having no idea where you went wrong or how to get the right answer. Doing a "postmortem" on the problems you get wrong or the tests you fail is an indispensable part of learning college algebra. Don't give up until you understand clearly what you did wrong; that's the only way you can learn from your mistakes. Often it is helpful to ask an instructor, a tutor, or a classmate for help with this since you may not recognize your own mistakes as clearly as someone else can. Keep track of the patterns of errors you commit, and target your bad habits specifically. Do you make careless sign errors? Develop the habit of double-checking the plus or minus sign in every problem you work. Do you tend to skip one step in a certain type of problem? Develop a rhyme, acronym or other mnemonic to remind you of the correct steps in order.

About the Author

Shandi Stevenson is a teacher, tutor and author whose work has appeared in national and international publications including "Shibboleths," "Homeschooling Today," and "Resort Living." She holds a Bachelor of Arts in literature in English and a Master of Arts in humanities.

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