Five Tips for Calculus Success

Most students are nervous when they have to take calculus. They are worried that somehow it will be tougher than any math class they have taken yet. But, while it is a tough course, many things that helped you understand math in previous classes will help you at this level. The fact that you are worried and reading an article like this means that you probably already have what it takes to do well!


Tip 1: Check your algebra skills

To be able to do calculus you need to really understand algebra. In fact, one of the biggest things that students have trouble on and miss points on is the algebra work of a calculus problem. These are things like simplifying rational expressions and solving complicated equations. If it has been a while since you took an algebra course, you will want to take the time to review some of the important ideas and have a resource for when you get stuck. Something like Schaum’s outline for College Algebra, which gives a good review might be useful. You should also take a moment to bookmark the mathbootcamps algebra articles as well.

Tip 2: Get up to speed on your graphing calculator

If you haven’t used a graphing calculator much yet, you will find it amazing how much actually graphing and seeing the functions help you understand what is going on. If you are working on a problem and really stuck, sometimes taking a look at the graph helps you find your mistakes. If at all possible get comfortable with the calculator before your class starts It is a lot more difficult to learn a new calculator along with a lot of new math ideas.

Tip 3: Don’t just memorize – learn why

Algebra can be very formula based and in some ways you can solve problems without ever really thinking about what you are doing. You could probably do the same with calculus but just as in algebra there is a major problem with this style of learning: if a problem is slightly different or unique, you will completely be stuck. So, when you read examples or try problems, pay attention to why each step is done and in what situations different rules apply. Once you see this you may start finding shortcuts and realizing that you really don’t have to memorize as much as you thought.

Tip 4: Pay attention to notation

It may seem unimportant, but the little details of the correct notation are matter and help you understand what is going on in the lectures and in the textbook. This is the language of calculus and if you are using it incorrectly, how can you expect to truly understand anything? Students often will write a symbol that means “take the derivative” and then keep writing after that step. But when they go to review their work, they don’t know when they actually took the derivative. In your work, be sure to be organized and precise.

Tip 5: Actually learn the formulas

Memorizing when you don’t have to is a waste of time. But, there is are absolutely rules you will need to memorize in order to do well in your calculus course. The best way to achieve this is by working problem after problem until the rules and formulas are second nature. What does this mean?

Think of it this way: if someone asks you your name, do you have to think about it? You want the rules of calculus to be that natural. It will take some time and some effort, but it will pay off as you are able to focus on the bigger picture.

Additional reading

If you are about to take a calculus course, you should make sure to check out the MathBootCamps calculus section. Also, if you aren’t sure if you should take business calculus or calculus, take a moment to read: business calculus vs calc 1.