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College Algebra|Roadmaps to Success

By Hannah Colwillmath image

You did well in your algebra class in high school and enrolled in MATH 1400 (College Algebra) hoping for an easy “A” that will boost your GPA while simultaneously fulfilling the QA University Studies Program (USP) requirement.  However, the course is more challenging than you anticipated. 

Don’t despair!  This guide is designed to help you succeed in College Algebra and earn the grade.

Do you have math anxiety?  Visit these links for advice on how to cope with it.


Are you unsure if you should stay or enroll in College Algebra?

There are two main reasons why you should take College Algebra:

  • to satisfy the QA USP requirement
  • to prepare yourself for calculus

If you just need a course that will satisfy the QA USP requirement and do not need to take calculus, consider switching into MATH 1000 (Problem Solving).  Problem Solving has a higher success rate than College Algebra and fulfills the QA USP requirement.  Dr. Weber described the content of Problem Solving: “you learn about math that is really more relevant to everyday life, like the mathematics of finance, statistics, and some probability questions.”

If you are unsure if your major requires you to take calculus, ask your academic advisor before you drop or take College Algebra.  Just because you know that your major does not require you to take calculus does not mean that you do not need to pass College Algebra specifically.  Some majors—such as Nursing—require students to pass College Algebra but do not require students to take calculus.


What should I expect from College Algebra?

Do not expect College Algebra to be an easy course.  A former College Algebra student commented, “I took calculus in high school, and I will honestly say that College Algebra and biology are the toughest classes that I have ever taken, and I am a pre-med major.”  You will need to study.  The tests are challenging.  You will be required to apply math concepts to problems you may never have seen before.  The problems you receive on the tests are not exact replicas of classroom problems.  The problems discussed in the classroom are much easier than the questions you will be given on the tests as they are designed to teach you fundamental concepts.  It is your job to apply those concepts to harder problems.  Ideally, a student should approach a problem like this: “I know what an x-intercept is, I know what to do to find an x-intercept, and it wouldn't’t matter what kind of problem you gave me.  I would do the same thing, and this is how I would find the x-intercept” (Dr. Weber).

What will I learn in College Algebra?
You will learn about functions, graphing, inequalities, factoring, exponents, logarithms, and different types of equations.  Learning these concepts will prepare you for calculus.

How are the tests formatted?
While all of the tests have a multiple-choice component, only the final is comprised of all multiple-choice questions.  The rest of the exam problems are short answer.  You are allowed to use a calculator on the exams, but it has to be a non-graphing calculator.

Should I purchase the textbook?

The textbook for MATH 1400 is recommended but not required.  Consequently, it is up to you to decide if you want to purchase the textbook or not. 

Pros of Purchasing the Textbook
In terms of content, the textbook has a lot more to offer than the software.  It has more discussion of the mathematical concepts you are required to learn, more worked out examples, and more problems that you can practice on.

A past student said, “Hawkes does have the ‘Practice’ part where it shows problems, but it takes a certain type of brain to be able to look at problems that are just enough different that you have to infer some kind of things, and I felt with the book that you might have had two different examples, that the book made it a little easier.”

Cons of Purchasing the Textbook
Textbooks are pricey and will put a dent in your pocketbook.  If you think the textbook will just sit on your bookshelf collecting dust, you should not purchase it.  The textbook will not help you if you never open it.

The Hawkes software—which you have to purchase—has an abbreviated version of what the textbook offers.  It has a brief instruction element to it and has problems that you can work through.  The “Instruct” aspect of the Hawkes software slowly walks you through concepts and then gives you the chance to try a few problems.  If you need more practice with problems before moving onto the homework, you can go through the “Practice” feature of Hawkes.

Tips for Success

Math classes are hard to study for.  “Tips for success” suggests small practices that, if you adapt, will hopefully make the time you spend studying more effective.  Ideally, you will want to spend a little bit of time each day studying for College Algebra.  You should spend two hours outside of class for every hour you spend inside of class.  This means six hours should be devoted to College Algebra each week.

What should I do in class?

  • Attend class regularly.  A former student noticed “Kids that didn'y’t show up to class either ended up withdrawing or not doing well.”
  • Take detailed notes.  Write your notes in such a way that you will be able to understand them later.  Don’t just write down the problem and the solution.  Write explanations about why you did something or how you did it.  In addition, write stuff down even if you think that you will remember it later.  It is better to write it down than to find out later that you don’t have it written down or remember it.
  • Highlight concepts in your notes as soon as you realize that you are having a hard time with them.  A former student said, “When you run into something tough or have a problem with something, you need to write that on your test notecard because in four weeks you aren’t going to remember what you had a problem with exactly.”
  • Use the calculator that you will use on the tests.  It is important to familiarize yourself with the tools you will use on the tests. Turn your calculator into a tool of success; don’t let it handicap you.  This means do not use a graphing calculator. 
  • Ask questions.  If you don’t feel comfortable asking questions in class, find the answers to your questions outside of class by going to an SI session or your professor’s office hours.

How can I be successful on the Hawkes homework? hawkes

  • Don’t wait to start your homework.  If you wait until the last minute, you may not have enough time to complete the assignment, or you may run into a technical glitch. 
  • Try the homework right after you learn about the mathematical concept in class, and then, if you have problems, ask them during the next class.  This will still give you sufficient time to complete the assignment.  The homework schedule is designed so that you will first learn about a concept in class, try the homework, ask questions about the homework during the next class, and then complete the homework.
  • Solve the problems in a notebook.  This will give you practice writing and showing your work, which you will be required to do for tests, and it will give you examples to look back at when you are studying for the exams.
  • Use the “Practice” feature of Hawkes.  The problems you encounter in “Practice” are very similar to the problems that you see when you do your homework.  At the very least, you should go through the “Practice” feature of Hawkes for the first few assignments until you learn how to put in the different mathematical signs, such as exponents and square roots.
  • Make sure you write your answers in the correct form.  Often times students will have the correct answer, but they will get the problem wrong because they did not write their answer in the form that the question called for. 
  • Read the problem all the way through.  Don’t stop reading the problem after it says “solve the equation.”  The problem could go on to say, “and give your answer in the following format.”  Even if you solve the equation correctly, Hawkes may not recognize your answer unless you enter it in the format specified.

How should I study for the exams?

  • Review your homework, quizzes, and notes a little bit every day.  Don’t wait until the last minute to study for an exam.
  • Treat your homework like a test.  Write the problems out in a notebook, and use the calculator you plan to use on the test.  This is the best way to measure if you are prepared for a test and/or if you need to ask for outside help.
  • Focus on the mathematical concepts as opposed to the specific solutions to problems.  Don’t just memorize examples.  The test questions are not exact replicas of the problems you encounter while doing your homework. 
  • Write a notecard for the tests.  You are allowed to write one notecard for every test. 
  • Try and fit as much as you can on the notecard. 
  • Use different colored pens to help you differentiate one equation from another and/or help you find needed information on your notecard faster. 
  • A past student commented on what she put on her notecards, “I went through the textbook, found the boxed off sections that contained equations and important information, and wrote all of that information down on my notecard whether or not the study guide said I needed to know it because you never know, a test problem could require a step not on the study guide.”  The “Instruct” feature of Hawkes also has boxed off sections.
  • Keep track of your notecards.  They will help you study for future tests. 
  • Form a study group.  It is beneficial and fun to study with friends.  If one person does not know the answer, someone else in the group might know it. 
  • Try and complete the study guide without looking at your notes.  This will let you know how much of the material you actually know without external aids. 
  • Attend as many SI sessions as possible.



math image2Where should I go for extra help?

Asking for help is a sign of strength, and there are a number of places you can go on campus to find help.  No matter where you decide to get help, it is important to remember two things:

  • Do not wait to get help.  College Algebra concepts build off each other.  As a result, if you do not understand something, you will have difficulty understanding what you are supposed to learn next. 
  • Have specific questions when you ask for help.  If you can pinpoint what you don’t understand or where you started to get confused, the person offering you help will be able to help you get unstuck faster.

When should I go to my professor’s office hours?
If you have a question, visiting your professor’s office hours is always a good idea.  As your professor is the one instructing you, he/she knows exactly what is being taught and what his/her expectations are.  Your professor will also be able to help you reconcile the differences between the formatting Hawkes requires and the formatting used in class.  However, professor’s office hours are limited, and your professor can only see one student at a time.  This means you may have to wait in line.  Also, if your schedule does not align with your professor’s office hours, you may not be able to see him/her. 

If you cannot attend your professor’s office hours, you can schedule an appointment with your professor.  However, it is not time efficient to do this for every little question you have.  Quick questions are better suited for SI or the Math Lab.  If you are struggling with a big picture idea, it is worthwhile to schedule an appointment with your professor. 

When should I go to supplemental instruction?

SI sessions are led by students who have successfully taken College Algebra in the past and have received training.  As SI leaders attend class and consequently know what course instructors have been teaching, they offer customized help.  Even if you believe that you understand everything, it is still beneficial to attend SI sessions.  Except for the final exam SI review, SI sessions are held in a computer lab.  This means that SI leaders can help you with your Hawkes homework. 

Try to go to your math section’s SI leader’s sessions.  However, if you are unable to attend your section’s SI session, go to one of the other sessions.   

When should I go to the Math Lab?

Located in the basement of Ross Hall, the Math Lab allows students to drop in whenever they have questions.  The Math Lab has very good hours; this means it is easy to find the time to ask for help.  However, while Math Lab workers will be able to help you with course material, they do not sit in on College Algebra classes.  This means they do not know what your instructor has been saying.  They are not able to offer as much customized help as your professor or an SI leader.

When should I turn to the Internet?
The Internet has a wealth of information.  If you go to a reputable website, the Internet has the potential to provide valuable instruction that could alleviate your confusion.  For example, West Texas A&M University’s “Virtual Math Lab” has a tutorial page about College Algebra material.


Special thanks to Dr. Weber (MATH 1400 instructor), Maria Cress (MATH 1400 SI instructor and past MATH 1400 student), Sarah Andrea (past MATH 1400 student), Jade Shevling (past MATH 1400 student), and Tyler Shevling (past MATH 1400 student) for allowing me to interview them.  Their insight into MATH 1400 was instrumental in the formation of this guide.

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