Learning from home: obstacle or opportunity?

Alex Keyser discusses how powerful collaboration can be, particularly in the new reality of studying from home, and sees that practice and good planning really are key to mathematical enlightenment.

Illustration by Cayla Basson

During the past few weeks of practicing very strict social distancing, followed by an announcement of the suspension of all contact classes, we students have had to adapt to the challenges of studying by ourselves.

Although the closure brought us the relief of not having to write our A1 exams, we are now faced with the responsibility of continuing the academic program from our homes. Some sees this as a great opportunity to sit back, take a load off and do the things they’ve wanted to do for a while now; I used this opportunity to catch up on some work that I was not that comfortable with. Given all this time I thought it best to focus on Mathematics. Here’s how I did it:

by Cayla Basson
Illustration by Cayla Basson

Collaboration is essential

In many ways, Mathematics is a collaborative effort. Stellenbosch University has put a lot of effort into creating spaces where students can come together, in between classes, to work on tutorials. Although I have been avoiding group learning opportunities thus far, the importance of studying in a group only became apparent after I started studying at home. I found myself in a position where there were several problems I just could not solve on my own. I quickly sent a WhatsApp message to a few friends from class asking questions, sharing solutions and discussing questions from tutorials and past papers.

I realised that it is important early on to create a network of driven individuals who are equally passionate about mathematics, to help you whenever you encounter a problem you can’t seem to solve on your own.  A simple WhatsApp group with your peers is the best place to start. I often noticed that while explaining a certain method to my colleagues in a voice note, I gained a more in-depth understanding of the solution in question.

There is no doubt that it is rewarding to be able to figure something out on your own. Asking a friend or a tutor for help might feel demeaning, but I assure you that this is not the case. Asking for help often introduces me to a whole new way of thinking about a problem and saves a lot of time.

Mathematics allows you to be creative. When introduced to a lot of ways to solve a problem, there is no real limit to your creative problem-solving abilities. You recognise patterns that make problem-solving a lot easier and saves a lot of time.

Illustration by Zurab Janelidze

Planning and practice

When asking a friend of mine who I know to be very confident with mathematics what his secret was, he could sum it all up in one word: Practice. Like a lot of things, it takes a lot of practice to gain a mathematical insight into the solution you are trying to find. You can only develop it by practicing. Hours and hours of practice. I compare it to playing sport or a musical instrument, you can only play as much as you have practiced.

During the past few weeks, I have done just that. Setting up an excel spreadsheet with at least four hours a day spent on practicing and working on problems. It is important to ensure that you have gathered all the resources you need to do so and that more time is spent on doing problems rather than trying to find problems to solve. Although the past tutorial questions might seem like enough practice, I would suggest giving a few past A1 papers a try. The more you practice, the better. Although some believe that a more theory-based understanding of mathematics might help, I have only ever benefitted from a good deal of practice. It does however depend on your preferred study method.

As previously mentioned, planning is imperative and will be even more so in the coming weeks. Being able to manage your time and be productive as much as possible is a must in order to achieve success. Be sure to also plan around doing a few other productive things aside from academic work, like exercising or reading a good book. It often helps to step back and take a break and get some new perspectives.

Although the next few weeks may seem a bit intense or stressful, I do believe that having a good attitude towards studying from wherever you are is your best bet. Although we might all seem a bit far from one-another, we’re fortunate to be living at a time when a friend is just a text message or phone call away. Be safe, be responsible and keep practicing.

Alex Keyser

First Year Engineering,

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