Staying Cool Outside Your Comfort Zone

The first time I went to a hot yoga class, I was sweating buckets… And that’s before the class even began! I’d just signed up for an intro class pass at my local studio, and decided to make the most of it. I didn’t have someone to come along with me to the class, let alone someone with hot yoga experience that could show me the ropes. In fact, I’d never even been to a new type of class without a friend there as a safety net. I read as much as I could about hot yoga online before the class, and it still sounded super intimidating. “Feeling like you might pass out is normal” isn’t the most reassuring thing to find out. Talk about stepping out of my comfort zone!

Whether it’s in the realm of fitness, school, work, or even hobbies, I’ve always struggled with going beyond my comfort zone. I somehow developed the mentality that if I wasn’t good at something, there was no point in doing it. If I’d never done it before, of course I wasn’t good at it! This became a vicious cycle. It definitely made it easier to have friends or family lead the way. So for many years, I only tried new things if someone else was doing it too. This strategy worked pretty well… Until I graduated.

If you’re a student, I’ll let you in on a little secret: real life doesn’t have extracurricular fairs. And there’s no curriculum forcing you to try new things. If you let the pressure get to you — like I did for a while there — you will just stick with whatever routines you formed in school. Maybe that means you’ll party every weekend, or maybe you’ll just stay home and watch Netflix. (I’ll let you guess which one describes me!) But as that super-popular Pinterest quote says:

Life begins at the end of your comfort zone - Flinntrospection

Ah, the eternal wisdom of Pinterest quotes.

If you want to grow, you have to go beyond that comfort zone! 

That said, how do you stay cool once you step into the unknown and the heat is on? Thinking back to that first class last winter, the strategies I used in hot yoga are applicable to pretty much any uncomfortable situation.

  • Take deep breaths. Listen to the gentle music playing (or the ambient sounds around you), and focus on those simple sensations. It helps you tune out the endless chatter of self-doubt, and to calm the physical and emotional impacts of new and uncomfortable situations. Make yourself comfortable in the physical sense, whether that means rolling your shoulders, finding some comfy furniture, or choosing products that promote comfort and support from brands like Tommy John (check them out here). No matter what you’re tackling, give yourself permission to find your zen.
  • View others’ success as inspiration, not competition. I definitely struggle with comparison and the impostor syndrome that follows. But lately I’ve tried to be mindful of the times when I notice others that are better at something than I am, and to use the opportunity to set goals rather than to foster jealousy and embarrassment. A yoga example: crow pose isn’t in my practice at this point, but many other people in my classes seem to have it down pat. It’s been a conscious process to focus on my own journey and keep a level head (so to speak) when the pose comes up in yoga class.
  • Track and embrace your progress — then keep going. As you continue to work through a new challenge, you will grow… And so will your comfort zone. At that point it can become easy, once again, to stay in that space. But the more you try new things, the more you will be able to handle — and even avoid — the discomfort that comes with it. Feel free to think beyond the typical linear trajectory of growth, too. When it comes to yoga, it’s easy to think of the practice as a checklist of poses to master. But I know that my biggest hurdle is a mental one. It’s all about quieting the mind, focusing on the breath, going with the flow. Look for new ways to challenge yourself, and you’ll learn how to stay calm, cool, and collected in the process.

How do you stay cool when the pressure’s on?

Four Things I Wish I Learned in High School

School is back in session! Are you lamenting the end of summer vacation (or maybe celebrating it)? I’ve been out of school for a few years now, and it still feels strange not heading back to class after Labour Day. Looking back on high school, I definitely learned a lot, both inside the classroom and out. But there are a number of life lessons I wish we’d all learned in high school. If you’re a student, know a student, are a teacher, or know a teacher, let me know if you agree! Continue reading

Blogiversary — A Look Back and Ahead

Hello readers! One year ago, Flinntrospection went live on the world wide web. So for our blogiversary, I’m taking a look back at some of the posts we’ve all enjoyed over the past year, and giving you a sneak peek into my plans for 2017. If you’re new to the blog, this post will also provide a nice little summary of what you’ll find here on Flinntrospection!

My First Post

This post, “hello and welcome“, went live on Boxing Day 2016. I was so nervous to release my writing into the world! We’ve come a long way since then, but it’s fun to look back and gain perspective on the journey.

Physics Studies & Academic Life

In case you missed it, I studied physics at university. (I know, I know, I’m nuts.) I’ve written a few posts on the topic:

Young Professional Thoughts & Tips

I’ve been in the working world for almost two years. I’m in no position to provide definitive advice yet, but here are some thoughts I’ve shared on the topic here on the blog.

My Fitness Journey

I hesitate to call it a “journey” at this point, but looking back a year ago, I’m surprised by how far I’ve come! This blogiversary is a great chance to reflect — especially since everything is documented! I’ll put these in chronological order:

Products & Apps I Love

At this point in my blogging journey, I’m not getting sponsored by companies to write posts or reviews. If I’ve told you great things about a product, program, or application, it’s because I’m genuinely a big fan!

Writing, Grammar, and the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)

The whole point of this blog was to write. So naturally, it follows that I would write about writing, right? Uh…right.

(Don’t know what NaNoWriMo is? Click here.)

Goal-Setting and Check-Ins

Every so often, I publish my goals on the blog, in the hopes that I’ll be more likely to stick to them. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. For this overview, here’s a link to my Goal Check-In for 2016 from a few weeks ago, and my “30 Before 30” Twenty-Something Bucket List!

Other Stuff

If you browse around Flinntrospection, you’ll find all sorts of things that I haven’t mentioned here. There are discussions on astrology, motivationsblogging and budgeting challenges, my favourite teas and TV shows, and ramblings about my cat

I’m not yet at a point where I’m narrowing this blog to a particular area. Someday I might. But I’m enjoying the flexibility of a full-on geeky lifestyle blog, so that’s where I’m headed for now. Now that this blogiversary has come and gone, I want to let you all know that my blogging goals and focus for 2017 will be similar to 2016. Perhaps I won’t be averaging a post every 3 days like I did this year, but who knows?

If you’ve been following along for a year now, thanks so much for your support! And if you’re brand new, hello and welcome! I’m so glad you could make it.

Happy Blogiversary and Happy Holidays!

On Memory & Understanding

I have a terrible memory.

When I was a kid, I received lots of praise for my memory. But this was solely because I memorized “In Flanders Fields” and recited it to my church on Remembrance Day in the second grade. From then on, my family and family friends had it in their heads that my memory was spectacular. Whether or not it was true then, it definitely isn’t true now.

Sure, I can remember basic facts and concepts. I’ve memorized pretty much every intelligible song lyric on KiSS 92.5 (because they’re set to music and repeated fifty times a day). I’ve got close relatives’ birthdays and other important dates in my head. But my long-term memories are spotty at best, and they tend to be visual memories of “scenes” in my head, rather than facts and stories. And when it comes to recalling something I’ve seen, read, heard, or even experienced recently, I’m totally useless.

It takes a lot of effort to move random data from my working memory to my short-term memory. I’m often busy, tired, or indifferent, so many of the things I hear or see don’t make it into short-term. And if they don’t make it to short-term memory, they definitely won’t make it into the long-term. Numbers and equations are awful for this. (Even worse: remembering to remember something — hence my tendency to abandon or lose important items that I need to have with me.)

It’s much easier to store information that has a context or a meaning.

Knowing why something is true helps me to recall what is true in the first place. In my academic life, if I had an understanding of a physics concept, I would be much more likely to remember the equation that models it. Its components and structure would just make sense. And in the worst case scenario, if I forgot the equation altogether, I could use what I do know to figure out what the equation should be.

Between memorization and understanding, I am of the opinion that the latter is much more flexible, helpful, and indicative of intelligence and subject mastery. It’s why I went out of my way to avoid school subjects that required straight memorization, such as biology or history. And given my memory struggles, I believe that grinding doubly hard to memorize is nowhere near as useful for me as developing a thorough understanding of a subject, and working out the “memorizable” facts from there.

Maybe you’re a natural memorizer, and therefore you disagree. More power to you! But I maintain that it’s important for you to have context for the facts and figures you memorize.

The problem, in my opinion, is that a fact recalled is often more revered than a concept understood.

For example, why was it so impressive that I had memorized a poem? Did I understand the poem, its context, and its depth? I highly doubt it. (Though I don’t remember. Hah!) Perhaps people assume that in order to memorize something complex, you must also understand it. But most people who took biology in high school would disagree. There may be a correlation, but it’s definitely not consistent.

I hate when we judge expertise on memory, rather than on understanding. You may have both, but you may also have only one or the other. There are fields and areas of life in which both are mandatory, and that’s understandable. But I’m not likely to focus my time and energy in those fields. I acknowledge the benefits of strengthening and improving your memory, but I also don’t expect myself to be able to recite the Periodic Table (or something relevant to my life now) anytime soon. When it comes to expanding your expertise, I think it’s more important to understand the concepts, then go from there.

“I want to oppose the idea that the school has to teach directly that special knowledge and those accomplishments which one has to use later directly in life. The demands of life are much too manifold to let such a specialized training in school appear possible […] The development of general ability for independent thinking and judgement should always be placed foremost.”
Albert Einstein

For some tips on managing a poor memory at work, check out this post!

How do you balance memory and understanding in your areas of expertise?

On Ambition

Where I work, I am surrounded by very ambitious people every single day. They’re lawyers or MBAs; they went to Ivy League schools or prestigious institutions abroad. They’ve skyrocketed up the ranks, holding titles in their twenties that most people spend their whole lives reaching — and they’re not done. For many of my colleagues, their ambition is President, Chairman, CEO. These titles and the lifestyles that come with them are just baffling to me. I look around and think, how did I end up here?

As a kid, my only concrete career goal was to be a writer. I’m talking fiction: novels proudly displayed on the shelves at Chapters. (eBooks weren’t really a factor when I was six.) I was constantly writing stories and showing them off, and family and friends would praise me for it. What kind of six-year-old writes stories like that? Probably quite a lot, but my friends didn’t. I won the local story contest in the first grade, which was my crowning achievement at the time.

Then, as I got older, more kids started writing. Some of them were really good. Some of them were better than I was. I wasn’t competing with a crowd of one anymore: it was a real crowd this time, and it hurt to not be the best. My writing was no longer worthy of the praise. At this point I shifted my focus to publication. If I couldn’t be the best young writer I knew, maybe I could be the youngest published writer I knew! But that timeframe came and went, and other, better, younger writers surpassed me.

The National Novel Writing Month came next. Writing a novel in a month? That’s definitely unique and impressive! But as more of my friends got involved and the years passed, it became less of a feat and more of a social activity. I now had a novel graveyard and no real passion for anything writing-related. Perhaps this blog, too, is just part of my never-ending cycle to find my niche.

So what am I doing at a company that glorifies ambition above all else? Well, it just so happens that I’ve carved out a little niche for myself there — for now. I’m “The Physicist”, the only non-Business student alumnus of the company’s leadership program. As we continue to work and our degrees fade into the past, though, this distinction won’t make much of a difference anymore.

What does this all say about ambition? For one thing, it’s not one-size-fits-all. Ambition is all about aspiring to reach the top of the heap — but the heap you choose to conquer is up to you.

Like many Millennials, it took me a while to learn how unrealistic it was to expect myself to literally be the best at something to which many people aspire. But I realize now that my goal then became the discovery of a teeny tiny heap, so that getting to the top (and earning the praise for it) would no problem. I’ve never looked at a role or an accomplishment and thought, “That hard thing is what I want to do.” Now is probably a good time for me to figure out where I should direct my ambition based on what’s right for me, not just on what’s easiest. Will I aspire to be the CEO of a multinational food service company? …Probably not, but I don’t want to rule anything out just yet.

What’s your ambition?

(And in case you haven’t read it, here’s an article from 2013 on ambition and Millenials: Why Generation Y Yuppies are Unhappy.)

Course Selection Tips for First-Timers

For all of you high-schoolers out there, summer is rapidly approaching! Many of you will have already accepted offers to colleges or universities for this coming September. Congratulations! But there is still work to be done before you can head off to school in the fall. Yes, I am referring to the dreaded “course selection”. As I helped my sister work through the process of choosing her classes this past week, in preparation for her first-ever course selection appointment, I realized that a lot of the information available to incoming freshmen is either super vague or too complicated.

Know Your Appointment Time.

You should have been assigned an enrollment time. Make sure you are available to be at a computer with good Internet at that time. It’s also important to know how early or late your appointment is, relative to the rest of your school. If your appointment is late, you may find that some of your courses or class times are already full. Keep in mind that you may need backups!

Get a Piece of Paper.

You don’t want to have the extra stress of memorizing your class schedule and course names, so write it down! This is the chart I’ve used:
Course Selection — Planning Chart

I’ve got ten slots here for courses, so that means five for Fall and five for Winter. If you’re planning on completing your degree in more than four years, just add columns and delete rows.

Use Full Course Codes.

In my experience, Canadian universities use course codes that usually consist of four letters for the department, and three or four numbers to specify the course. For example, my first-year physics class was titled “PHYS 104”. If the course code has a letter following it, such as BIOL 101A and BIOL 101B, that usually means there are two sections of the course, often offered by two different professors or at two different times. Keep track of the course codes for each course. That’s the only way you’ll be able to search for and find them when you go to sign up.

The first digit of the number in a course code usually refers to the year of study the school expects you to be in when you take that course. However, if you have the pre-requisites fulfilled, it often doesn’t matter what year you’re in if you want to take a higher-level course. (More on pre-requisites later.)

Find Your Program Requirements.

You will find your program’s requirements to graduate in your faculty’s “Academic Calendar”. For example, here’s the program I completed:

 Course Selection — Program Requirements for Queen's Physics

My university used “units” to quantify courses. 3.0 units meant one semester-long course. If you take 5 classes per semester, and two semesters a year, that equals 120 units over four years, which is a full degree. My plan had 72 units (or 24 semester-long classes) specified, meaning I had 16 semester-long classes left to pick for myself.

Fill in your chart with all of the required courses in each year. Record full-year courses twice: once for each semester. How many slots do you still have open for more courses?

Pay Attention to Pre-Requisites.

One of the first things I recommend doing when considering your university career is to look for any third- or fourth-year courses that really interest you, whether they’re in your program or not. Look at the pre-requisites for those classes, and see if they fit into your plan. But do those pre-requisites have pre-requisites of their own? Work backwards to figure out what you need to do to take those courses.

If you’re not sure what courses will interest you in the coming years, that’s okay! Focus on your program’s requirements first.

Be Well-Rounded: Check Your Breadth Requirements.

Many universities have breadth requirements, which are categories of courses in which you have to take a specified number of classes to make you more well-rounded. They might require you to take one course for a full year in each of science, arts, and humanities, for example. Choose whatever interests you in those categories, or whatever will help you prepare for your future career!

Tutorial or Not Tutorial? That is the Question.

Some courses have mandatory tutorials/discussions/seminars to go along with a lecture. Each lecture may have multiple tutorials taught by the same or different Professors or Teaching Assistants (TAs). The rule of thumb I’ve discovered is that if a course has tutorials available in the course selector, they’re probably mandatory. Also, if a lecture takes up less than three hours a week, it probably has a tutorial as well. That way you’re still getting 3 hours per week of instruction. You can always check in the course description — it will tell you whether a course has a mandatory tutorial component.

Some classes may also have laboratory components. Those usually work the same way.

If the course code for the lecture has a section (e.g. BIOL 101A or BIOL 101B), make sure you sign up for a lab or tutorial in the same section (A or B).

Course Selection for Electives!

Electives are the fun part! Electives are courses taken in any department, especially those that don’t fall under the umbrella of your program. You can take extra courses in your department if you want to, though, as long as your fulfill any breadth requirements you may have.

If you’re in a specialized program, such as engineering or commerce, your schedule may be filled up with required courses in the first year or two. That’s okay — you may still have space for electives in third or fourth year.

If you’re in a more general program, you may only have a couple of required courses in first year. That means first year is the perfect time to take some electives! Just make sure you prioritize the electives that satisfy your breadth requirements.

Be Prepared.


When your course selection appointment arrives, you will be able to submit your schedule for the semester or the year (depending on your school). But the online portal will allow you to pre-build a schedule before your appointment. Make sure you do that!

In addition, if your electives are super popular and your appointment is relatively late, do some searching to find backup electives that will fit your schedule, so that you can swap them out at a moment’s notice.

That’s all I have for you today, future frosh! Good luck with your course selection, and comment if you have any questions!

For those of you who have gone through this process before, what course selection tips do you have for the Class of 2020?

Y is for Year of Big Changes

Today is my and my boyfriend’s anniversary! As my parents have pointed out, nobody cares about dating anniversaries. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a good time to look back on the past year and reflect on everything the past year has brought. Plus, it’s now been a full year since we both left Queen’s University, so there have been a lot of changes in the past year. Let’s recap.

I Got a Diploma

Ayyy, look at that, I graduated!

 Y is for Year of Big Changes — Graduation

Looking back on it, I would say the degree I chose to complete was neither the best nor the worst choice for me. Would I do it again? Sure. Would I change some things? Absolutely. But no point in dwelling on the past — onto the future!

Big Girl Job

Technically, my job at Tim Hortons didn’t really start out as a big girl job. We were still hired as a group of thirty new(ish) grads, and were still considered the “kids” at the company. But now, a year later, the new crop of hires will start trickling in soon, and I won’t be the new kid on the block anymore!

Moved Out (for real this time)

Throughout university, I lived on and off campus with roommates, so the concept of not living at home wasn’t new to me. However, the biggest change I’ve noticed since moving out for real is that I don’t think of my parents’ place as “home”. Because it’s not. When I “go home”, it’s now to my own place, where I get to decide where stuff goes and how I live in it. So far, no complaints.

Got a Cat!

 Y is for Year of Big Changes — Lorelai

This little kitty was our best decision. Lorelai brightens our mood, our day, and our home. She is so affectionate and playful. She is currently pawing at me for pets.

Signed up for Ipsy

This may not sound like a big deal, but signing up for Ipsy Glam Bags marked a big step forward for me. I wanted to step outside my comfort zone when it came to makeup. Having samples catered to me really helped me accomplish that.

Spent Holidays this Year as a Couple

Y is for Year of Big Changes — Christmas

Like Christmas, for example!

It’s official: now that Joe and I are living together, we must now attend all family holiday functions together, or not at all. Well, okay, that’s not true, but that seemed to be the expectation. But we were okay with that.

Starting This Blog

Writing a blog has been on my bucket list for years. The planets aligned this past December, combined with the right amount of motivation, creative energy, and Internet research, and now the blog is a reality. Here’s hoping I stick with it.

First Cruise

I’ve been on vacation before, but before this March, I had never been on a cruise. As I discussed in another post, it’s nice to have lots to see and do in multiple countries, while still enjoying the comfort of a single room in which to sleep and store your things. It’s definitely the type of vacation Joe and I will do again soon.

There are a lot of big-ticket life changes on this list, and I’m probably forgetting some as well. Basically, it’s been a big year. Onto Round 2 of the real world!

What big life changes have you had in the past year?

V is for Vocalish - My Arts School Experience

While the vast majority of my university career was focused on science, my high school life was all about the music. I attended an arts school, and it was pretty much exactly like you’d expect:

Arts School - Glee

This was music class.  

Arts School - High School Musical

All the time.

Arts School - Uptown Funk

All day, everyday.

Well, maybe not. Yes, we actually had to go to real classes, and only the dance students danced in the hallways (and only sometimes).

I was an instrumental music student. That means I lugged my clarinet to and from school every single day, attended band rehearsals two or three nights a week, and (I think) prolonged my orthodontic treatments in my quest for a better embouchure. To those of you who played a larger instrument in your arts school and are rolling your eyes at my use of the word “lugged”: it was heavy, okay?! I ended up doing pretty well, participating in competition-level bands and getting a solid grade as well. I considered majoring in music in university for all of five seconds, before I realized that I had no desire to practice my instrument ever again once I graduated.

Arts School - Please don't make me play the clarinet...

Okay, but why does the title of this post say “Vocalish” rather than Instrumentalist — and what does “Vocalish” even mean?

First of all, today is “V” in the Blogging from A to Z Challenge. So that’s one reason.

But the real reason is that I also had quite a bit of involvement with the vocal class in our school. (For reference, there was a woodwind class, a brass class, and a vocal class in each grade.) I really like singing, and it was quite easy to pick up without requiring much practice outside of the classroom or the choir rehearsal. I ended up also joining the competitive choir, which was a really great experience — and I was the only instrumentalist that joined.

There are lots of reasons for that, like the time commitment and the skill required to audition, but another consideration was the stigma that instrumental students attached to vocalists. There was a widespread belief that the singers were divas, and that vocal music doesn’t require nearly as much intellectual power as instrumental music does.

Arts School — Haters Gonna Hate

Given my “vocalish” status, I wasn’t one to take sides. Sure, my vocal music didn’t require much at-home practice compared to my clarinet pieces, but those alto harmonies were hard, not to mention working on tone, timbre, and enunciation, especially in languages you have no hope of understanding in time to perform. Plus, those arts school stereotypes were totally unhelpful.

So in the end, I graduated from high school with extracurricular “credits” in both choir and band. And while I was technically a graduate of the instrumental class, the vocal program still holds a special place in my heart. Besides, I don’t play my clarinet along with the radio while driving down the highway… but I don’t miss that chance to belt it out.

Did you attend an arts school? What forms of art are special to you?

Q is for Queens — A University Review

Exactly one year ago, I was studying for the final exam of my university career at Queens. (It was Nuclear and Particle Physics, if you’re curious. Yeah. Good times.) It was a bittersweet time, of course: saying goodbye to friends and routines, and hello to the real world of the daily grind. I have to say, I’m definitely very happy that I’m not slogging through exams right now. But some of you out there are currently looking at university right now as your next big step, rather than your nemesis. Yes, I’m talking to the high schoolers. If you’ve received an acceptance to Queens University in Kingston, Ontario and are weighing your options, or if you are in another phase of your life and wondering about what’s next for you or a loved one, let me share some of the most important things for you to consider.

Queens is big on culture.

Queens University Flag

Queens College colours we are wearing once again…

Some Queens students and alumni seriously bleed tricolour. The school is massively invested in its Scottish and academic heritage, as well as its tight-knit community and culture. Honestly, this wasn’t a big factor for me, but it did tend to attract generally nice people as students, which was fortunate for everyone. If you’re interested in showing school pride at various sporting and cultural events, this is a great place to be.

Kingston is kind of remote, but moderately cultured.

The downtown core of Kingston is very close to campus, so Queens influences quite a bit of the city’s identity. The Royal Military College and St. Lawrence College also play a role here. While Kingston has a lot of history, being Canada’s original capital city and everything, it doesn’t have a ton going on. Most of its industry is dependent upon the schools as well. It doesn’t compare to Ottawa or Toronto, for example, but there’s more going on than in London or Waterloo, for sure.

Also, because it’s remote, most students aren’t able to live at home while attending. I believe that living in residence and off-campus without parents is an extremely valuable experience, and I wouldn’t have wanted to do university any other way. I would recommend spending at least a semester or a year away from home (barring financial difficulties, of course).

Having the lake so close to campus is awesome.

All you have to do is cross the street at the south end of main campus to get this view:

Q is for Queens — Lake Ontario in Winter

Naturally, because it’s Canada, my only nice shot of the lake is in winter.

It’s really amazing to be able to go for a walk, study, or hang out by the lake at any time. (Even in winter, apparently.) This amplifies the beauty of the campus, which is already pretty sweet in its own right. (Except for the math building.)

Queens is expensive.

This is a school that’s known for its wealth. I studied in the “cheapest” program, with tuition costs around $6,500 per year, but it’s really the housing and student fees that hurt the wallet. You’ll get a quality education out of it (small class sizes, famous profs, great gym facilities included, etc.), but you’ll pay for it.

It’s a great school for a CV.

This may be a factor for some of you, especially those considering competitive post-grad studies or careers. Queens has a great reputation in many fields, but it’s for good reason; you will actually have to work hard to do well, in general.

However, I have heard from some Life Sci and Bio students that this may not be the case for Med School. It seems that the notoriously difficult Life Sci program tends to negatively impact GPAs for students who would otherwise have done very well and made it into Med School via another undergrad program. Also, keep in mind that some professional schools don’t require you to major in the subject that will be your eventual focus, as long as you have your prerequisites covered.

Clubs galore.

Queens often touts its impressive number of clubs, teams, and associations. I really wish I had taken better advantage of these opportunities while I was in school. Though, to be fair, there’s only so much time in your day, so seek out what interests you and what will benefit you as you strive toward your ultimate career and life goals.

My reasons for picking Queens were a little more simplistic, and a little less valuable:

  • It’s Scottish, and I’m part Scottish.
  • It’s far from home, so I didn’t have to live at home.
  • It’s pretty.
  • My parents liked it.

But if you’re putting a little more thought into your university decisions (or helping a loved one decide), be sure to take these points into account.

Gaels, anything you’d add to this list?

Cha gheill!

M is for Math — Why High School Math Sucks

For the last few months, I have been tutoring my sister in Grade 12 Math. That’s Advanced Functions and Vectors, so far.

My sister and I are very similar in a lot of ways, but when it comes to academics, we are very different. I’m a solver, not a memorizer. When I come across a question structure on a test that I don’t remember (which is likely), I’ll solve it from scratch, using whatever methods and facts I do have. That doesn’t work in chemistry, biology, or history, which are all very memory-heavy, so I avoided those courses in school. Physics, math, and English, on the other hand, are great for solvers. My sister is more of a memorizer, which is great for memory-type courses, but when it comes to math, not so helpful. And math is a pre-requisite for a lot of university courses.

As we’ve been working through the curricula, we’ve obviously had to work through the obstacle of different learning and test-taking styles. However, I have noticed one thing about high school math course structure in general that I never noticed as a student.

It seems that many upper year high school classes start with the how of a particular mathematical concept, rather than the why. Sure, if you were to read the textbook cover to cover, you would get an explanation of every concept and how they all link together. As it stands, students seem to be introduced in class to the solution method first. Then comes the application: the “word problems”. And I imagine the lack of context and deep understanding is the reason why so many students I know hate word problems: because if it’s not exactly how they’ve seen it in the past, it’s very hard to connect the dots and realize what mathematical tool is useful in the new context.

Of course, if a teacher only has two periods to introduce the dot product, for instance, they’ll need to spend one class on how to calculate it, and one class on how to use it to solve more complex problems. It wouldn’t be a stretch to provide a ten-minute introduction to the meaning behind the concept in that first class, before getting into the nitty gritty. But another barrier is the time that now needs to be dedicated to “work periods”.

So many students, my sister included, have become so heavily involved in extracurricular activities that they have less time to spend on homework in the evenings, or are too burnt out to function when they finally get around to their math. These activities have become more prevalent and necessary than ever, with the need to bulk up university applications (and, perhaps, appease over-achieving and vicariously-living parents?). Because of this, many teachers start regularly holding “work periods” during class time. This also serves as one-on-one time with the teacher, but only for the couple of students that happen to get their attention. So what ends up happening is that the students have a solid half-hour or hour to work on their homework in class, but they don’t quite understand what it is they’re trying to accomplish as they work through a problem. Then they get to their tests and have to extend their understanding to new problem types (for Ontario students, this is usually in the form of the dreaded TIPS questions), and they have no clue where to begin.

I’ve also found a couple of instances in which the textbook or the lesson will introduce a “shortcut” of some kind, without really explaining where it came from. My theory on these is that the teachers and mathematicians that write curricula and textbooks were also the kinds of students that excelled in math, in general. So they would have breezed through high school math, and probably loved using shortcuts to get through their homework and tests more efficiently. The problem is that today, many students are now using these shortcuts without the proper foundation that comes from a full understand of a mathematical concept. Most of these students will simply memorize, regurgitate, and move on. As a “solver”, this drives me nuts

This is all a new realization for me. In high school, I had a fairly easy time grasping the concepts being taught, so I appreciated having time to get my homework done before heading off to band after school. I was also very self-motivated and self-regulated, so I rarely struggled with getting things done on time.

But now I’m seeing my sister and her colleagues look at math as a course to be loathed and feared, and it’s confusing for me. (Yes, third year math was awful, but that’s a different story.) I don’t have a solution here, but I wonder how many high school math teachers have wrestled with this issue, and what they’ve come up with. I’m sure there are many schools of thought on this, but I’m also curious as to whether the structures of standardized math curricula allow enough freedom for teachers to combat the issues.

Did you struggle with math in high school? How did you tackle the challenge?