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  4. Reading maths

Reading maths

Maths is usually written in a concise form using its own language and symbols, which can take a while to learn, use and understand. Here are some tips.

Learning the language

  • Make your own dictionary for words, symbols and formulas. Group them in topics, such as geometry or statistics
  • Make a large A4 bookmark. Record new notation, definitions and results on it and use it as you work through the unit and for revision later
  • Watch out for words that have a specific meaning in maths but a general meaning in everyday life, for example, power, product or differentiate
  • Take time to practise the language – discuss ideas with other students and try to use new notation and vocabulary correctly as you write
  • Make notes as you work through the maths

Understanding the maths

  • Work through the maths yourself, one line at a time
  • Jot down your thoughts and comments in the margin – to explain calculations, ideas and the meaning of new abbreviations and symbols
  • Ask yourself why each step was taken, this will help you to understand the argument as well as guiding your own problems later
  • Highlight key ideas or steps to help with your own problems later
  • Try to visualise the problem by drawing a diagram, making a model or thinking of a practical example
  • As you read, ask yourself questions: How does this fit in with what I already know? What would happen if...?

Sorting out difficulties

  • Recap on earlier techniques, ideas and notation
  • Read on to the next section or example – this can help you to see the problem differently
  • Discuss the problem with other students or your tutor – at a tutorial, by phone, by email or in a forum

Exercise in reading maths

You can practise your maths reading techniques using the following process

  1. Choose a mathematical topic from your module.
  2. Skim read it first to get an overview and to find out which parts you will need to concentrate on.
  3. Then work through the topic more carefully, working through as many of the examples as you feel you need, and trying out some of the tips for reading maths.
  4. Try making some notes on the booklet, a bookmark, your dictionary or in your notebook.
  5. When you have finished working on the topic, spend a few minutes looking back on your study
    • are there any ideas or problems you are stuck on? Try the ideas in If you get stuck.
    • which tips were helpful?
  6. What will you do differently next time?

Reading charts, graphs and tables

Quite a few modules that are not directly concerned with maths may expect you to work with charts, graphs or tables that present information and data. If you haven't used them much before you may want to check that you know how to read and interpret the information they hold.

The booklet 'Working with charts, graphs and tables' will help you develop strategies for extracting numerical information. It is particularly relevant for modules with little mathematical, scientific or technical content that, nevertheless, require students to work with charts, graphs and tables. It has range of activities for you to work on. Look through the contents and select an activity that is relevant to your studies. Try to spend no more than about 15 minutes on this.

The OU booklet 'Working with charts, graphs and tables' gives you further information on this subject.