*Bits, ink, particles, and words.*

Why is it that some students will pick up new subjects in mathematics and science relatively easily, while others will struggle for weeks on end getting just the simple concepts down? As a tutor, I see this all the time. In fact, I would almost wager to say that *most* students I work with aren’t actually having difficulty with the topic they say they don’t understand. So what’s going on?

I’m currently studying both mathematics and physics in university, and I have to admit that it can be difficult to straddle the line between the two. Both are similar, yet demand different mindsets in terms of how to think about tackling a problem and actually coming up with a solution. In mathematics, not only is the right answer desirable. Every step along the way should be rigourously justified. That’s because the conclusion that one wants to get to rests on the arguments that come beforehand. Without those arguments, you don’t have anything. This is why mathematics classes require students to create proofs that carefully apply definitions. I’m not saying that there isn’t any playfulness involved, but when it comes down to making an argument, the clearer the supporting propositions, the easier it is for others to become convinced of the truth of your claim.

If you’ve ever taken a mathematics course, chances are that you’ve seen how definitions are one of the common items on the board. Definitions form the heart and soul of mathematics. They allow us to pose problems in very precise ways, yet they are the bane of many students, who get back their assignments and see that points were deducted because things that seemed “minor” and weren’t included were in fact quite important.

Broadly speaking, I classify mathematic into two bins. On the one hand, there’s the mathematics that many students in university must learn, such as calculus and linear algebra. These form the bedrock of many jobs in the corporate world, and so students from business, computer science, finance, and other disciplines have good reason to learn these topics. Likewise, there are parts of mathematics that are useful to scientific disciplines like physics, chemistry, biology, and so on. The common thread here is that these mathematical courses are *operational*.