When I was at open days for uni everyone had the same questions: “Do I have to be good at maths?” and “Do I need to have done further maths?”. I don’t really remember how they answered these questions, but it tended to be something along the lines of: “It would help.”… Not all that helpful. I’m two and a half years into a physics degree so I feel like I can help answer these questions.

As I mentioned in my last blog I really enjoy maths. However, it was only during sixth form that I started to enjoy maths. When I joined high school I was placed in the second to bottom set. It took me the whole of high school, slowly moving up sets after doing well in tests, to finally being placed in set 1 in sixth form. I feel like starting in a lower set really held me back from reaching my full potential at school in mathematics. Once I started sixth form, I took both maths and further maths. I was quite paranoid that everyone in my class would be a lot smarter than me since they all had been in set 1 for GCSE and also had done an extra GCSE further maths qualification. They had started calculus whereas I didn’t even know what calculus was. To prepare for his I got the textbook and taught myself the calculus “core 1” maths we needed to know.

For most of sixth form I was pretty happy with how maths was going; my teachers were very good and I was fairly happy with most the content we were learning. But there was one ongoing problem that I decided to ignore. Though I was very happy with the calculus, I still had large gaps in my understanding of algebra. This became quite evident when we did mock exams where when I came across some algebra I couldn’t do I would, unsuccessfully, try to fudge my way around it. I think I was quite a rare case: I could do all the calculus, but struggled with the algebra. My teacher did try point this out to me, but I brushed it off; I was to embarrassed to admit I couldn’t do (what was then) basic algebra.

I should have asked for help, I was arrogant not to. I found the exams stressful as I had to write to the last minute because the algebra took me so long. I always did fine, but I could have done a lot better if I could admit where my weaknesses were and did something about them. My friends helped me a lot; I felt more comfortable telling them where I was struggling, but throughout sixth form I had gaps in my knowledge and misconceptions I refused to address.

I assure you, I am going somewhere with all this babbling, but I think this blog is long enough so I will write a part 2 where I will conclude what I have learned in my struggle to understand maths, how it resulted in my love for the subject, and finally answering the question in the title of this blog.

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”

-Richard Feynman

[…] is part two of this series click here to see part […]