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I'm a computer programmer by trade for about 6 years now, and most of my jobs haven't really exercised my mathematical abilities much. As a result, they've atrophied quite remarkably.

I took the basics in college (calc, discrete, linear algebra, linear programming, probability/stats) and although I remember some of the material, most of it is either known superficially or just plain forgotten.

As a result, I'm constantly faced with the question above - I feel that my foundation of knowledge is weak and that I need to "brush up" and relearn a bunch of subjects before I can tackle some problem that I'm currently working on.

For example, I've never done 3D programming and it's something I've been recently getting more interested in, but when I opened a book on it I immediately became anxious at the amount of formulas and knowledge they assume you have. I cracked open my old linear algebra book, however, and found it to be way too basic (and boring, honestly, maybe bc I still kind of know some of these things).

I'm always of two minds about whether to just jump right in and learn things just-in-time, or prepare by going back to more basic topics. Do I need the whole of linear algebra to understand 3D programming? Probably not. The question is, how much do I need? (Same question goes for physics - I assume refreshing mechanics is enough, in the sense of being able to code basic mechanics demos).

Another field I got interested in lately is DSP, and I run into the same type of doubts. Do I need to go back and go through my entire calculus and discrete math books? If not, which parts do I pick up? When I do so I usually end up going through the first few chapters and just stopping, because I'm not getting much in the realm of application and honestly I get bored. Then I get frustrated with myself because I'm getting bored. It's become somewhat of a vicious cycle.

Am I just making much ado about nothing? What learning styles/methodologies have worked well for you?

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3 Answers

up vote 4 down vote accepted

Am I just making much ado about nothing?

Yes.

What learning styles/methodologies have worked well for you?

Accepting that I can't hold on to the university knowledge has worked for me. It brought me peace of mind.


If you're really interested in some field, pursue it. If you're just worried that you don't have enough knowledge for any random field you want to try tomorrow, then you would do yourself good by stopping that.

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+1: If you could ever do the math, it'll come back. Your brain is supposed to dump unused knowledge. –  Satanicpuppy Apr 29 '11 at 13:22
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Anything is enough as long as you set your goals barely ahead of what you already know. Vague advice, but if a task looks difficult rather than incomprehensible, you probably have a good chance at learning from it. I found this to be especially true in fields like mathematics: The stuff in this year's book looks like gobbledegook when you buy it, difficult while going through it, and simple a year later (at least if you've advanced in the meantime).

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learn what youare interested in, you'll relearn the math needed as you go. As for the rest, when you need it again, it'll be easier to relearn, becasue you learned it once, back in college. Otherwise, unless it's CPR or the like, don't worry about it.

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