You can probably recall being asked in kindergarten about what you wanted to be when you grew up. You may have answered something totally ambitious, like a professional basketball player or movie star, or perhaps something outlandish like unicorn or Transformer. In the moment you were asked, you probably thought of adulthood as being a distant future. Little did you know that you’d have to make big decisions about your career only 8 years later as you graduate elementary school!

When students enter grade 9 or secondary school in Canada, they are often compelled to pick between academic and applied courses. As innocuous as that sounds, it is actually a big decision to make: the courses you choose will have a major impact on the trajectory of your postsecondary career.

Of course, when you are choosing your courses in grade 8 to enter grade 9, the last thing on your mind might be your postsecondary career. Many students will pick what they perceive to be the easier course, others will sign up for all academic courses though they are not academically ready or have the right learning skills in place, others will simply sign up for whatever their friends have chosen.

Whatever reason you pick your academic and applied stream courses, it’s important to make an informed choice rather than just making assumptions or snap decisions about what will be best. Streaming, or the practice of placing students into different categories for academic or applied learning, has been a subject of hot debate in recent times. Many education critics have research to show that students are often wrongfully placed into applied classes due to systemic flaws in the education system. Many families also believe that grade 8 or 9 is too early to make decisions as big as your postsecondary career, while others assert that applied classes set students up for failure. Ontario, Canada's most populous province, is attempting to destream its grade 9 core classes.

While the debate over streaming classes persists in education circles, students are still left in the predicament of trying to figure out how to plan their secondary pathways. If you are still unsure about what stream or streams of courses to take, you have come to the right place. This article explores the meaning of academic and applied streaming in high school, and the benefits and disadvantages of each - particularly in math. We will discuss the best ways to choose your course pathway, and how you can be successful in your math courses, whatever the stream may be.

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What are the reasons you want to learn math? Source: Unsplash.
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What is the Difference Between Academic and Applied in High School? 

The difference between academic and applied classes in high school can largely be explained in terms of the postsecondary options they lead to. Academic stream classes are geared toward students who have made a decision to attend university after they have graduated secondary school. Many academic courses in the senior grades are listed as prerequisites in many undergraduate programs. Academic courses focus on the more abstract and theoretical elements of a subject, and use real-world or community examples.

Applied courses, on the other hand, prepare students for entry into the workforce or community college programs. They are more hands-on in their approach, and tend to focus on foundational elements of learning. Typically, they are understood to be less academically rigorous, making them a popular choice for students who do not want to continue pursuing the subject after high school.

How to Pick Between Academic and Applied in High School? 

Choosing between academic and applied courses in high school can get complicated as you balance your long term goals with your own self awareness of your weaknesses in school. If  your grades have been low in math historically, and you don’t really enjoy learning it no matter how hard you try, it might make a lot of sense to avoid academic math. However, if your goal in life was to be an engineer, and have learned that a grade 12 academic math course in Calculus is a prerequisite, you might take the plunge and work hard to be successful in math.

All of this is to say that you need to consider your options carefully in high school. If you decided you wanted to apply for a degree in business or commerce, for example, and took applied math in high school, you would probably have to return for summer school to get the credit, which can delay your university application.

Choosing the right pathways in secondary school is important to your future. Make sure you understand the differences between academic and applied math.

Choosing Your Math Courses Wisely 

Math is one area where students may have a hard time choosing between streams. Applied math courses are usually focused on math that can be used everyday or in the workplace. It’s an enticing choice if you don’t particularly enjoy math, but can be the wrong option to take if you need it to get into the university program you want.

Choose your math courses wisely by starting with the end goal, or an idea of the end goal in mind. If you see yourself working in the arts, you might find it beneficial to take a mix of applied math and academic English and History so you can direct your focus on the courses that will matter most. Keep in mind, however, that most university programs will require you to have academic English - so check university websites to make sure you know exactly which credits you will need to obtain.

If you are still on the fence about what your postsecondary career will look like, it might be a good time to have a conversation with a guidance counsellor, parent or mentor. Talking to an adult who understands academic pathways can be important as they will be able to give you some ideas you could pursue. 

For many students applying to university programs, taking all academic courses is a way to ensure you are able to apply for whatever you want. Of course, the challenge then will be to achieve a high level of success in those classes so you can get higher, competitive grades. If this sounds like you, you may want to consider pacing your course load over an entire year or hiring a tutor - a topic we will discuss in detail later.

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Secondary school is a time for making critical decisions about our pathways. Source: Pexels.
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Benefits of Applied Math in High School 

While applied courses are typically seen as a less than ideal option for high school course selection, it’s important to understand that choosing applied math can offer students some important benefits. Here are a few.

A Less Stressful Credit

While academic courses have heavier workloads, higher expectations and can be competitive, applied courses tend to have less stress as the goal is to cover and learn the essentials. If you aren’t interested in pursuing theoretical and abstract math concepts in postsecondary, or would rather learn a discipline unrelated to maths altogether, applied courses in math can be an amazing option. You will have less stress, and more time to focus on the courses that you are more passionate about. Best of all, you’ll still fulfill a requirement for your secondary school diploma.

There are a lot of factors to consider when choosing your math courses in secondary school. Pick the right pathway to keep your options open in the future.

You can Mix Applied Math with Academic Courses

Taking applied math or any applied subject doesn’t entail that all of your subjects will be applied. In fact, it can be a great idea to mix them up so you have lots of options in the future. You might take, for example, academic English and applied Science, and still have the requirements to get into a literature or humanities program.

Applied Math May be the Best Option For You Right Now

Sometimes applied courses will offer you a curriculum that you can actually access and engage with. This can be especially true for math, where students with foundational gaps in their learning will inevitably be unsuccessful in an academic course. Start with an applied course, build your math skills, and you may decide to switch to an academic course later. If you think this pathway could suit you, make sure you talk to a teacher and they can give you the best advice about moving from applied to academic. They may suggest you take a bridging course, suggest a place to take an academic upgrade, or give you some good advice about how you can be successful in an academic stream environment.

There are Great Non Math Degree Careers

There are plenty of great careers that don’t involve a high level of math, or for which applied math will be sufficient. Dozens of trades require math, but you don’t necessarily need an academic math course as a prerequisite. Thinking of going into education and teaching the humanities? No math degree required. The same goes with lots of programs and jobs in the arts and even technology.

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Will you choose academic or applied math? Source: Pexels.

Pros and Cons of Academic Math in High School 

Academic math courses are a popular choice for students because of the amount of pathways that open with the course credit. In an academic math course, students learn mathematics through theoretical and practical lenses. While it might seem to make sense to take all academic courses, the truth is there are pros and cons to choosing a full academic stream. 

Pros

The most obvious pros to taking academic courses are the range of options they can provide in postsecondary. Having an undergraduate degree is still very much sought after, and employers value higher education in the backgrounds of job candidates. In education, a degree is required for hire. Unlike people that take academic courses, people that take all applied courses will have to take a course upgrade if they decide later that they want to attend university. 

Another pro for taking academic courses is that you will study a broad range of advanced math topics that will stretch and challenge your thinking. Topics encountered in academic math include:

  • Quadratic functions
  • Exponential functions
  • Geometry
  • Trigonometry
  • Data Management
  • Logarithms
  • Calculus
  • Vectors
  • Derivatives
  • Algebra
  • Probability

Cons

When you take academic math, you will be challenged - which can be a con if you aren’t quite ready or have the foundation to meet the demands. Many students find academic math overwhelming, stressful, and can risk not completing or failing the course if they are not quite ready for it.

Academic math can also be competitive, with so many students vying for a high grade that can show up on their university applications. Sometimes classes like this can be less enjoyable for students who prefer a less intense atmosphere.

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Many career and postsecondary options become possible with applied math. Source: Pexels

There are some good reasons to take applied math in high school. You might be surprised!

Why Pursue a Math Degree?

The greatest benefit of academic math, however, is that you will be able to pursue a math degree or a degree related to math. More basic math courses like applied math will not enable you to go to university math classes. Many programs in university in the sciences, engineering, mathematics, statistics, business, medicine, commerce, and so one require the completion of a university track credit to be considered for admission.

If you did take an applied math credit and did not take the academic, or did not get the desired grade from an academic course, you haven’t closed the door on math related degrees forever. In fact, many private and public education institutions offer ways you can upgrade your course to academic. These credits may be online math courses you can take asynchronously, or in person at an adult learning centre or community college.

Should I get Math Tutoring?

Whatever math course you end up in - be it in grade 11 math or grade 12 math or another grade - you may want to consider hiring a tutor to support your language learning and to perform as best as you can in class. Superprof.ca is the best place to connect with a math tutor that understands the curriculum of your province, and to find someone who can work with your learning needs and style to help you meet your potential in secondary school math.

Superprof is a streamlined, easy to use site containing profiles of math tutors all over Canada who are experienced with high school math curriculum. They can work with you to identify where you need the most help, schedule sessions at a frequency and price that works for you, and help you prepare for all your exams and assessments. Simply go to the site, type math in the search, and you will have plenty of tutors to compare in terms of profile and price.

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Applied math will teach you the essentials. Source: Unsplash.

Should I Hire a Math Tutor or Online Math Tutor from Superprof?

Once you have decided to hire a tutor for math help, you may want to think about what math private tutoring format will work best for you and what kind of tutor will meet your needs.

Aim to find a tutor for math help on Superprof that has at least 2 years more experience in math than you, such as a university student or a professional math teacher. Communicate your schedule and desired outcomes, and take advantage if they offer a free hour so you can see exactly how they will work with you. If you are looking for a tutor for your child, make sure your child is part of the conversation and understands why they are getting a tutor. This will empower them to understand that they are accountable for getting as much out of the sessions as they can, and to put their best effort forward.

You’ll also want to determine whether or not to hire an in-person or online math helper or tutor. In person tutoring is great for students who prefer live interaction and may need that format to monitor their learning behaviours. Online tutoring is incredibly popular and is perfect for you if you have a busy schedule and want the convenience and safety of learning with the click of mouse. There are so many great virtual tools for teaching math, that in many cases tutoring can be enhanced in a virtual environment.

Find a math tutor near me on Superprof today!

Academic math has its pros and cons. Choosing academic math can lead to so many postsecondary programs and careers.

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Colleen

Colleen is a Toronto-based educator, mom and freelance writer who believes in lifelong learning and strong coffee.