Tackling ‘When Will I Ever Use This?’

A student asked me, the other day, but it could have been any day, 'when will I ever use this?' Later, I had an epiphany while reading the excellent Cal Newport's Study Hacks blog. (Seriously, if you're reading this in the hope of becoming a better student, you're in the wrong place, my friend. Cal is the business.)

It was this post in particular, about how what you know matters more than what you do, that caught my eye. This paragraph sums it up:

According to my colleagues, this star researcher tends to begin with techniques, not problems. He first masters a technique that seems promising (and when I say “master,” I mean it — he really goes deep in building his understanding). He then uses this new technique to seek out problems that were once hard but now yield easily.

Very interesting. The academic superstar didn't have any particular superhuman insight, but the ability to learn techniques and - critically - find problems to apply them to.

"When will I ever use this?" (as Bon, among many others, has explored) is, quite often, used as by students as a tiime-buying device. But, here's the rub: if they're asking me the question, I probably haven't motivated the lesson well enough.

Now, I'm personally quite firmly in the applied maths camp (maths is interesting because it's useful) rather than the pure (maths is interesting, q.e.d.), and I generally do a rubbish job of saying "you need to be able to sketch curves because..." or "you need to be able to solve simultaneous equations because...". Hence the number of times I get asked 'when will I ever use this?'.

So here's an idea: can we set up a game where you need all the maths in a module to succeed? Where the sums are motivated by actual, proper applications rather than fictional trains and bathtubs? What would it look like? How would it work?


Colin is a Weymouth maths tutor, author of several Maths For Dummies books and A-level maths guides. He started Flying Colours Maths in 2008. He lives with an espresso pot and nothing to prove.


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I teach in my home in Abbotsbury Road, Weymouth.

It's a 15-minute walk from Weymouth station, and it's on bus routes 3, 8 and X53. On-road parking is available nearby.

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