Mathochism: Hitting the test wall

One woman’s attempt to revisit the math that plagued her in school. But can determination make up for 25 years of math neglect?

Under the compass of Damocles On Thursday, my spouse and I went away for a long weekend. We drove to a lovely inn in a small town by the ocean.

All my calculus books went with me, and while my husband was reading a book by the fire, or at the beach, I was sitting near him boning up on limits and derivatives.

I spent about 16 hours total studying. I now know how to spot an indeterminate form, and why a limit at negative infinity makes a huge difference over a positive one when dealing with, say 5 + √x+1. I know how to prove the power rule, product rules and quotient rules.

I spent a lot of time deriving polynomials, root functions and trigonometric functions.

We got back last night, and I spent the morning studying at the college.

Then, in class, we had a quiz. Now, a quiz doesn’t have as much weight as an exam, but still. I spent 16 hours studying on vacation, plus another three this morning. For the arithmetically inclined, that’s 19 hours total.

It still wasn’t enough. I definitely failed today’s quiz. We were asked to prove that 1-cosx/x equals zero. My brain froze. I should have just used the conjugate, but I forgot.

We were asked to find a tangent line for 1 + 2cosx with x at π. I froze again. I completely forgot what I should be doing, and scribbled something weird.

And then there was taking the limit of x + 10/√(x+10)² as x goes to -10. I panicked again. Was this another absolute value in disguise? And if it was, doesn’t the + make a difference? I can’t see either way how this limit can exist.

At this point, I feel like I’m beating my head against a wall. Why can’t I get this? Why can I spend hours solving problems correctly, then keep failing test after test?

It feels like such a waste of time. Maybe it’s time to drop this and walk away. Maybe it’s time to just acknowledge that, when it comes to math, I can handle it up to pre-calculus. That is my wall.

It’s too bad, though, because as I was studying this weekend, I really felt like I was grasping most of this. Now, I realize that’s just not true.

All text copyrighted by A.K. Whitney, and cannot be used without permission.


  • You are right on the third problem – it is an absolute value question in disguise, and the limit doesn’t exist. Just try the substitution u=x+10, as u goes to 0. And you are correct that using the conjugate would help simplify the first problem. So I think you do indeed know a lot more of the material than is showing up on your tests so far.

    Given all that, I would encourage you to take advantage of your professor’s suggestion about seeking an anxiety accommodation, especially if you think that more time and fewer distractions might have helped you on this quiz. I think it’s entirely reasonable to want your grade to reflect your understanding of the material, not how anxious you were about the test. It does take a while to set that up, though, so if you are thinking about that option, it would be good to get it going.

    I think you’ve done a wonderful job so far on this journey of showing how you can get a lot further in understanding math than your younger self had thought. I see no reason that wouldn’t apply to calculus as well, particularly since your comments so far tend to show that you do indeed understand this material.

  • Thank you, Dave W. I really appreciate this comment. Because of my jerk brain (hat tip to Captain Awkward!), this is one of the most difficult things I’ve done so far. And I’ve really challenged myself over the years. Flying an airplane, learning Chinese, running a newspaper section, running a theater company — easy peasy. Not panicking on a calc quiz? Not so much.

  • Seconding the notion of pursuing an anxiety accommodation. Your description here is “my brain froze,” “I forgot how to do this.”

    That’s a response to the test, not to the material.

  • Thanks. I will definitely work on it.

  • If it would help to hear about my experiences with accommodations, let me know. I had to tell a jerk brain to shut up too and was surprised with how it turned out. Of course it’s your journey and I think you’re rocking either way, so please take this as an offer that you shouldn’t feel pressured to accept. 🙂

  • I would love to hear about your experiences! The interesting — and frustrating thing, though, is that I’ve come to realize my jerk brain is only part of the problem. I actually plan to address this in an entry tomorrow, but let me just say now that it’s one of those perfect storm situations.

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