When I enrolled in college, my placement scores allowed me to skip college algebra. I decided to take it anyway because it had been several years, and I was sure I was rusty. I’m so glad that I took it. I’m currently studying calculus and analytical geometry, and I gotta tell you. If you’re taking algebra, don’t slack. If you do you will seriously regret it when you get to calculus. You can breeze through pre-calculus and trigonometry without being an algebra ninja, but not with calculus. It’s just like my calculus professor said–the hardest part about calculus is algebra. You’ll repeatedly use algebraic techniques that you thought you would never see again. The slope formula? That thing will beat you silly the first week in calculus if you don’t learn it now. In calculus, you will literally use everything you even just glanced at in algebra. Furthermore, your calculus professor will be disappointed that you didn’t see more things in algebra.
I don’t have a lot of advice for students taking algebra, but following are some of my thoughts. I’m sure your professor will drill it into you, but I should probably say it too… good note taking and practice are the key.
Modelling problems, otherwise called “application problems” or “word problems” are often the most difficult part of mathematics for most students. It takes me more time to solve a modelling problem than it takes to solve other problems, in fact, I would even say that modelling problems are more difficult than other problems. However, where I differ from a lot of math students is the attitude I have toward them. I like them. I find them challenging. To me, they’re puzzles, and I love solving puzzles. There is a very real benefit to doing modelling problems and that is that it takes all that abstract mathematics and turns it into real, useful, tools.
Most of the modelling problems encountered in college algebra involve geometry, interest calculation, mixtures, uniform motion, rate of work done, or proportions. My suggestion is that you try to figure out a general procedure for each different type of problem. Some of these procedures involve the applications of formulas. For example, for simple interest calculations we use the formula I = prt (interest = principal * rate * time) and for uniform motion we use d = rt (distance = rate * time). For other types of modelling problems, you can learn specific tactics that make it easier to solve any problem of that type. For example, draw the problem if it involves geometry, and for mixtures; make a table. The takeaway here, is that general solutions/equations/procedures are extremely helpful when you’re ready to solve specific instances.
Absolute Value Equations and Inequalities
I’ve always had trouble with absolute value equations and inequalities, and so I think do a lot of other people. I try to remember the specific procedures, for example; |x| = a means x = a or x = -a, but come test time, I end up confused and unable to remember the procedures. The only thing that saves me is to think logically about a given case. It often helps me to draw a number line and then mark it up with interval notation and arrows to show the values that x can take.
When working with absolute value, it helps me to think of it as distance. For example |x – 3| is just the distance between x and 3. Distance is always positive–just like absolute value. If given the problem |x – 3| < 9, I would start by drawing a line with an arrow at each end (my number line). I know that the distance between x and 3 is less than 9, so I mark a spot for 3, a spot 9 units to the left of 3, and 9 units to the right of 3. I know that x must be between those outer two points in order for it to be within 9 units of 3. Then my answer is simply 3 – 9 < x < 3 + 9 or -6 < x < 12. What is |x|, you may ask? Well, it’s just the distance between x and zero.
Your calculator is your best friend. Learn it well. Your calculator will save your life repeatedly when you’re in the midst of battling an exam… assuming you’ve learned how to use it. You must learn how to graph functions and use the trace and intersection features. This will allow you to double check your algebraic work as you go along. You also need to know how to enter an equation and then use the table and VAR features to try different values for x. These skills are guaranteed to save your ass and to save you time in the long run.
Also, be sure to read my post on avoiding mistakes in algebra.