Here's the Secret to Acing All Your Math Tests

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For a lot of people, a math exam is pure nightmare fuel. Recalling formulae, preparing to solve problems you’ve never seen before and having to understand abstract definitions of words you barely remember to start with. But that doesn’t mean you can just not revise – the exam is on the horizon whether you like it or not.

The good news is that revising math isn’t really as bad as it seems. The problem is that it’s different to revising most other subjects, where you usually just need to remember some key facts or interpretations of a text. Math is about practice more than anything, and if you tailor your revision strategy to it, you can get through your exam and come out with a great grade.

Practice, Practice, Practice

The No. 1 tip for revising math is working on practice problems. The truth is that even if you don’t fully understand everything that’s going on, you can answer the questions and pass the exam if you’ve gone through the same basic process enough times at home. Go through the questions in the textbook, redo some of your homework problems and find any relevant questions you can online. If most of your time is spent solving problems, you’ll do better than if you spent most of your time reading your notes without tackling questions.

And whenever you get something wrong, look through the solution carefully and see what went wrong. Mistakes are normal, so don’t get down on yourself, but make sure you know what exactly happened so you can avoid it in future.

Past Papers Are Your Friend

The best source of practice problems are the past exams for the same course. They give you the level of the questions you’ll be expected to answer, and you can often get a good feeling for what will be included on your exam by looking at a lot of them. The truth is, teachers often aren’t that creative, and sometimes you’ll see a repeat of a question from a previous exam on your paper. But even if you don’t get lucky like that, if you’re familiar with the past exam papers, you’ll be much more likely to ace the test.

You can work in your own way, but personally I try to save one or two past exams to do in real exam conditions a few days before the test.

Understand the Concepts

Remembering formulae is difficult, but you’ll improve your chances if you truly understand what each formula does and where it comes from. This is where your notes and the textbook are invaluable: The plain-language explanations of each formula will give you the base-level understanding you need to both recall and use the formulae you need in the exam. If you have an equation sheet to refer to in the exam, focus on understanding those formulae, but if you don’t or there are extra ones to remember, grasping the underlying meaning and concepts is crucial.

Work in Groups

Group work doesn’t seem like the most natural approach to math, but it can be really helpful. Everyone has different strengths, so your classmates will be able to help you, and you’ll be able to help them too. You might pick up some new techniques for problem solving, learn some useful mnemonics or just get a good explanation of a concept you’ve been struggling with.

Write Out Step-By-Step Solutions/Cheat Sheets

Often in math, there is a “recipe” to follow for a certain type of problem. Solving a second-order differential equation might seem like your personal hell, but there is a clear, step-by-step approach you can use in the vast majority of situations. You should write this down (even if you can remember it) and practice using the recipe on real-world problems. By the end you’ll remember the process and be familiar with using it.

Making “cheat sheets” like this for a range of problems is a really effective way of cementing the problem-solving process in your brain.

Use Flash Cards/Post-It Notes

If there is a big component of memorization in particular, flash cards and Post-It notes are invaluable revision tools. Many people put them up around their rooms or their house, so you’re constantly reminded of the most important facts, but the most important thing is checking them regularly. There are also apps you can use to make yourself a little interactive quiz.

General Revision Advice

Of course, there are many other more general tips you should keep in mind. Remember to take breaks, and don’t decide to stay up all night studying. You need to sleep well, eat well, stay hydrated and generally look after yourself if you’re going to perform at your best.

You don’t need me to go through all this for you, but it matters. Follow the math-specific tips in this post, don’t neglect yourself in the process, and you’ll knock the exam out of the park.

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About the Author

Lee Johnson is a freelance writer and science enthusiast, with a passion for distilling complex concepts into simple, digestible language. He's written about science for several websites including eHow UK and WiseGeek, mainly covering physics and astronomy. He was also a science blogger for Elements Behavioral Health's blog network for five years. He studied physics at the Open University and graduated in 2018.