The Math Learner’s Checklist

Bored with math lately?

Have you been doing math, but not sure you’re really learning it?

Fret and fume no longer! Below, you will find a definitive (read: not definitive) checklist. Simply think back to your latest mathematical experience, and check a box for each question to which you can answer yes. (Boxes not provided.)


  1. Did you recognize a strange pattern, or the beginnings of a pattern, or the lack of a pattern, and say to yourself, “Wait… what?!20150218082622_00002
  1. Did you find your jaw hanging open wider than a Warner Brothers cartoon?20150218082622_00003
  1. Did you feel a primal, animal thirst to understand whether (and why!) a certain pattern held true?20150218082622_00005
  1. Did you say aloud, “What in Gauss’s name is going on?20150218082622_00004

  1. Did you stand dumbfounded at the foot of the problem, unsure how to begin, like a rock-climber staring up a cliff?20150218082622_00006
  1. Did you try something, without any confidence that it would prove correct or even useful, but simply because it seemed worth a shot?20150218082622_00007
  1. Did you think, “Yes! I’ve got it!” immediately followed by, “No, that’s all wrong…20150218082622_00008
  1. Did you think, “No, that’s all wrong…” immediately followed by, “Yes! I’ve got it!20150218082622_00008b
  1. Did you take a break to let your brain chew on the problem in the background (perhaps while you chewed on gummy candies in the foreground)?20150218082622_00009
  1. Did you recruit a calculator or computer to do the repetitive work for you, so that you could focus on the big picture?20150218082622_00010
  1. Did you get stuck, start explaining your dilemma to someone, and then cut off your explanation halfway, because you’d suddenly solved your own problem?20150218082622_00011
  1. Did you receive a one- or two-word hint (like “triangles” or “topological invariant”) that made your eyes go wide with understanding, as if you’d just glimpsed the inside of an atom?20150218082622_00012
  1. Did you produce a solution that you knew was flawless… and then realize with a sinking feeling that it was obviously flawed?20150218082622_00013
  1. Did you work so closely alongside a partner that you can’t remember whose ideas were whose anymore, as if you were sharing a brain?20150218082622_00014
  1. Did you admit that you needed expert help, and turn to a book/teacher/colleague/message board/Magic 8 Ball?20150218082622_00015
  1. Did you embrace an expert’s advice… then begin to doubt it… and then regain trust after verifying the key steps for yourself?20150218082622_00016
  1. Did you finally solve a seemingly tough problem and think, “I’m a blind fool! It was obvious from the start!”20150218082622_00017b
  1. Did you finally solve a seemingly easy problem and think, “I’m a fiery genius! It was far harder than it appeared at the start!20150218082622_00018
  1. Did you, in writing up or summarizing your work, find a simplifying shortcut that saves buckets of time and effort?20150218082622_00019
  1. Did you, after solving a problem, feel the giddy impulse to go around explaining your work to friends, family, baristas, and pet dogs you pass on the street?20150218082622_00020

If you checked anything, then congratulations! You’re learning math.

If you checked nothing, then don’t worry! Just go out there. Find something mathematical that you want to do, but aren’t sure how. Then start making mistakes!

If you checked everything, then stop checking things! You didn’t actually experience all of those, did you? You’re just a compulsive box-checker. Stop cheapening the significance of the check.

9 thoughts on “The Math Learner’s Checklist

  1. My husband says I’m a math geek. I decided not to share this list with him. You left off the question about t-shirts that have math puzzles on them….or math sayings, or math references…. It’s nice to know there are other math learners out there!

  2. Just shared this post on my Facebook page. I think your blog could really be called Learning with Reasonably Good Drawings. Your ideas really speak to many different types of learning.

  3. Would be good if you would provide a checkbox. Finding a paper and pen for ticking is just too much of work 🙂

  4. 3. i have a habit of trying to figure out a pattern or answer to a problem.
    19. i would like to start doing shortcuts but i tend to just write everything down.
    6. i try not to jump into things

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