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GMAT Math: Memory vs. Memorizing

A Case Study of the Area of an Equilateral Triangle

Fact: on the GMAT Math section, you are likely to find questions about the area of an equilateral triangle, and it would be efficient if you knew the formula.  (BTW, the formula appears a little further below.)

 

Don’t Merely Memorize

I am going to recommend that you work to remember this formula, rather than memorize it.  What distinction am I drawing?  By memorizing, I mean you write this isolated factoid, area of an equilateral triangle, on an index card, and drill yourself until you can successful regurgitate it.  That’s one way to get something into your memory, but it’s hard to retain it, particularly over the long term.  One big problem is: on the day of the test, because of increased stress, if you forget the factoid you previously could regurgitate, you are stuck: you have no recourse.

 

Memory with Contextual Understanding

By contrast, true learning involves remembering something because you understand it.  When you understand every step of an argument and how it fits together, that makes it very easy to remember.  This is particularly true in mathematics: if you can remember the series of steps that lead to a conclusion, first of all, such learning makes the conclusion much easier to remember; furthermore, even if you can’t remember the conclusion or want to check it, you will probably remember enough of the argument that you can reconstruct it if need be.  This is a much deeper kind of understanding.

 

Example: The Area of an Equilateral Triangle

Suppose you have an equilateral triangle with sides of length s.
We know all the sides have the same length.  It’s not relevant for finding the area, but we also know that all three angles equal 60 degrees.

Step #1: We know that the formula for the area of a triangle is A={1/2}*bh.  The base is clearly s, but we need a height.

Step #2: We draw an altitude, that is, a line from B that is perpendicular to AC.  The length of this line is the height needed in A = {1/2}*bh.

 

Step #3: Point D is the midpoint of AC, so AD = s/2.  Also, angle ADB is 90 degrees.

Step #4: Call the length of BD h, and apply the Pythagorean Theorem in triangle ADB:

{(s/2)}^2+h^2=s^2

{s^2}/4+h^2=s^2

h^2=s^2-{{s^2}/4}

h^2={4{s^2}/4}-{{s^2}/4}

h^2={3{s^2}}/4

h={s*sqrt{3}}/2

Step #5: Now that we have the height in terms of s, we can find the area.

 

Area={1/2}*bh

Area={1/2}*s*(s*sqrt{3})/2

Area=({s^2}sqrt{3})/4

 

That last formula is, indeed, the area of an equilateral triangle, and remembering it will be a definite time-saver on GMAT Math.  Again, I don’t want you to memorize it.  Rather, I strongly encourage you to remember this five step argument: practice recreating it step-by-step until you can flawlessly recapitulate the entire thing by yourself.  Then, you won’t merely remember this formula — you will own it!

I encourage you to do that with each important GMAT math formula.  If you don’t know the steps that lead to a particular formula, and can find it online, leave me a comment  :).

Try a free Magoosh GMAT Practice Question to practice “remembering” what we just learned!

 

About the Author

Mike McGarry is a Content Developer for Magoosh with over 20 years of teaching experience and a BS in Physics and an MA in Religion, both from Harvard. He enjoys hitting foosballs into orbit, and despite having no obvious cranial deficiency, he insists on rooting for the NY Mets. Follow him on Google+!

8 Responses to GMAT Math: Memory vs. Memorizing

  1. Ryan October 21, 2014 at 6:40 pm #

    Having an issue in Step 4. How do you go from

    H^2 = s^2 – (s^2)/4 (3rd equation)

    to

    H^2 = 4 (s^2)/4 – (s^2)/4 (4th equation)

    Thanks,
    Ryan

    • Mike
      Mike October 22, 2014 at 11:55 am #

      Dear Ryan,
      I’m happy to respond. :-) I simply multiplied the first term, the s^2, by 4/4 to get a common denominator. We can always multiply by 4/4, because that’s a quantity equal to 1, so it doesn’t change the value of the expression.
      Does all this make sense?
      Mike :-)

      • Ryan Ross October 22, 2014 at 12:06 pm #

        Thanks, Mike.

        This makes sense.

        Ryan

        • Mike
          Mike October 22, 2014 at 2:09 pm #

          Ryan,
          You are more than welcome! I’m very glad this made sense to you. Best of luck to you in your studies!
          Mike :-)

  2. Caroline August 27, 2014 at 2:47 pm #

    While this seems like the most thorough way to learn the formulas, I think it is an unrealistic approach. When will I find the time to locate and fully understand the derivations of all of the needed math formulas, while also plugging away at lesson videos and practice problems? Just recalling this five-step argument would eat up the entire ninety seconds needed to solve the problem.

    • Mike
      Mike August 27, 2014 at 4:56 pm #

      Dear Caroline,
      I’m happy to respond. :-) First of all, you will notice that, almost always in the Magoosh lesson videos, we explain the derivation of the formula as part and parcel of the lesson. We never simply say: here’s the formula, just memorize it. It’s already part of the lesson. I’m suggesting that you take notes on it, remember it, and include in your studying, rather than studying just the formula in isolation. A very good way to study the formula is to look at the formula itself and explain to yourself: from whence does this formula come? Why is this true? If you study & practice that way consistently, it will become ingrained, and by the time you get to the test, you will simply know it inside-out. That’s my hope.
      Does this make sense?
      Mike :-)

  3. Cami July 17, 2014 at 5:53 pm #

    Isn’t the sum of all three angles inside a triangle 180, instead of 60?

    • Mike
      Mike July 18, 2014 at 10:09 am #

      Dear Cami,
      Absolutely! The sum of the three angles inside any triangle is 180. In an equilateral triangle, each angle is 60, so the sum is still 180. Does all this make sense?
      Mike :-)


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