Math 124 - Calculus for Biology
Spring Semester, 2016

  2016, All Rights Reserved, SDSU & Joseph M. Mahaffy
San Diego State University -- This page last updated 13-Jan-16

Math Learning

This web page has been created to help students succeed in Math 124. Several points are being made based on previous experience to help students learn the subject.

  1. The single most important skill for success is having a good background in Algebra. There is a pretest given in the first computer lab to determine your level of skill. If you have had a gap in taking math and this Algebra Pretest is at all challenging, then you need to refresh your skills in algebra. This is best done with Math 141 or College Algebra at a Community College. The importance of algebra skills cannot be emphasized enough. I have heard many students say they remember some property from algebra, but just need to review it. In Calculus, we must assume that you know these properties of algebra, not remember them. An analogy would be jumping into a German literature class, where the course is taught in German and you are trying to analyze literature (written in German), but you never took German I and II though maybe had a week vacation in Germany. What would be your chance of success in the class (not counting native German speakers)?
  2. You need to work the Homework as if you are doing an exam. You should print out the WeBWorK assignments, then after reviewing the section, you need to sit down with computers and cell phones turned off. You need to do this work yourself without others assisting. You can allow yourself a hand written page of notes (better just a 3x5 notecard) and a scientific calculator. Now work the assignment on paper, then plug your answers into WeBWorK. If most of your answers are correct, then you understand the material. If you had trouble, then you talk to friends, tutors, TAs, and me. But you discuss concepts about what went wrong, learn the material, and try again in isolation. Math is not a social subject! Below I list common problems I've seen.
    1. Probably the first problem that I see students make is that they don't start the HW until hours before it is due rather than close to the time the material is given in lecture. With the late start the student takes shortcuts, like Wolfram Alpha or asking help from fellow students.
    2. Students learn about Wolfram Alpha and other online material and become addicted to using these tools. These tools are great when 5-10 years from now you encounter a Calculus problem in your research and need a quick reminder of the how to take a particular derivative or solve a specific differential equation, but you don't have these tools on the Exams, which account for much more of your course grade than the HW.
    3. Social media: I have seen a particular decline in student performance in the last few years with social media. Students use Facebook to get solutions to problems. Student A solves a particular problem, then posts the solution, and several other students simply copy the steps from Student A. Only Student A benefitted, while the other students claim they "learned" how to do the problem, but clearly don't really understand this problem sufficiently to be able to reproduce the results on an exam or work a slightly different problem.
    4. Cell Phone and Internet: The course introduces a few rules, and the HW works with these few general rules to understand a particular concept, say the product rule. I have seen students not bother with learning the basic rule from the course, but choose to browse the internet until they find a problem close to their particular problem (often wasting a long time) and copy this solution. That is not learning the scientific method, which is the base of this course. Ask yourself if you can browse the internet to new science? By definition, the internet contains information already discovered.
  3. Attitude is a significant portion of success. The majority of students see Math 124 as a requirement/obstacle to their goal of majoring in biology or progressing to a medical career. This course has a very significant purpose in teaching you the roots of science. (Several Biology faculty told me that if the students cannot learn the basics in a Calculus course, then they don't want them in their upper division courses!) You are supposed to be learning basic (abstract) rules and how to apply them, which allow you to solve specific problems. Over the semester there will not be that many rules that you need to memorize (easily fit on a 3x5 notecard). It is really a course in critical thinking, the base of science. Far from being irrelevant, you are learning how to build a subject in science from the bottom up. This course is meant to bring you from sloppy general high school math and science to university level studies.