The Calculus Conundrum: Tips for Success (Part 2)


While the lack of quality progression in calculus concepts is the driving force behind the class’ difficulty, there are other contributors. First, the subject’s reputation can lead to a lack of student confidence and motivation. Many students reach calculus, and, having heard the horror stories about the class, have already mentally checked-out and given up before the class begins. “I’m not smart enough for calculus,” and “I could never pass calc,” are common mentalities that lead students not to give their best effort or to skip the class entirely – book your private Costa Mesa calculus tutor today.

One last explanation is the prerequisites. Calculus doesn’t pick up where your trigonometry, algebra, or even precalculus class left off. Instead, it begins its own unique timeline while expecting you to remember topics from all of your previous math classes. If you didn’t do well in a previous math class, or if you crammed for your exams and didn’t retain much information, you might be in trouble. Many students describe being good at geometry but not algebra or vice versa. Or they struggled with trigonometry but are good with other operations. Unfortunately, your calculus class will likely incorporate it all.

Remember those special right triangles in geometry? What about transforming shapes, finding areas and volumes, and revolving polygons in three dimensions? They all make a comeback.

Are you glad that polynomials and all of their different graphs are finally done with? Sick of finding intercepts, asymptotes, and extrema? I have some bad news.

Did you forget all of those trig identities and unit circle angles after you had to know them for a test? Get ready for even more memorization.

Calculus tends to be a hard class for students. The ideas are new, the symbols unfamiliar, and the pacing is fast. Students come in expecting a hard class which can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. They also might not be prepared if they didn’t do well in previous classes or don’t remember the previous material. Now that we’ve covered the problems with the class and the potential difficulties, what are the solutions?

The Core Problems

The core problems with calculus classes are ones that can’t be solved by students and individual teachers. Calculus concepts need to be taught slowly and early. Rates of change, displacement, and nontrivial areas and volumes are constant sources of word problems throughout math classes. These ideas should progress into basic derivatives and integrals so that the ideas and symbols can at least be familiar. Limits and infinity concepts can be taught much sooner, likely in place of memorizing arbitrary methods to find asymptotes and end behavior in polynomials. Teachers make students memorize so many equations and problem-solving techniques just to avoid doing anything that is being saved for calculus class.

What can parents do to prepare their child for calculus? If you’ve planned ahead, you can start having your student prepare before the class begins. An experienced tutor can review what prerequisites they need to know and retain before beginning calculus. The tutor can also begin to explain the key ideas at a more gradual pace. That way, when they begin the class, they have a head start on understanding calculus and a good foundation to keep them from getting lost, falling behind, or losing motivation. If you know who your student’s calculus teacher will be, you can also get in touch with them to see what material they recommend reviewing beforehand.

Already Taking a Calculus Class?

If your student is already in calculus class and struggling, they will still benefit from a private tutor. The tutor can diagnose the problem and try to find the solution. They may need to review earlier material, they may need to be taught topics differently if the teacher isn’t getting the message across (READ: Tips From an Irvine Tutor: How to Overcome a Bad Teacher), or they may just need more practice and repetition to iron down some key fundamentals. This is especially important if the teacher isn’t responsive or helpful.

It is also important to know if your student plans to take an AP exam in calculus at the end of the year. It is important to start preparing for the AP exam immediately in order to get used to the wording and types of questions. If their teacher isn’t giving them practice AP questions every week or with every test, then they should be practicing for the test on their own or with a tutor.

Like it or not, calculus class is not going away, and it won’t be fundamentally changing overnight. If calculus class is coming in the future (or the present), it is important to know why it can be such a difficult class, and what to do to stay ahead and have success. The key is to stay proactive.

Read part one here.

Michael C. is currently a private math, science, and standardized test tutor with TutorNerds in Irvine and Anaheim.

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