If you are like me, you probably struggled with Math at the beginning. Math is a difficult subject for a lot of people. It’s difficult. It’s confusing. If you miss a topic it’s hard for you to catch up. Furthermore, studying for a Math test is arguably harder then studying for other tests, since you can’t simply memorize material for it. However, I have learned how to concur studying for this subject over the years. So here’s my do’s and don’ts when studying for a Math test.
Do: Practice Math problems every day. Don’t: cram everything the day before
Unlike the majority of other subjects, it’s incredibly difficult to simply cram for a Math test, since Math is always cumulative. Even when your Math teacher tells you that the test is not cumulative, in reality, it is. Every new topic that you learn in Math builds on the old topic. If you are bad at arithmetic, you can’t learn algebra. If you are bad at algebra, you will not be able to do well in calculus. Since it’s almost impossible to cram all of the cumulative material one day before the test, you should start studying for a Math test early.
What I usually do is practice Math problems for 30 minutes to 1 hour every day (depending on how busy I am with other subjects on that day. If I have an exam in another subject and an essay due tomorrow, it’s usually 30 minutes. If it’s Friday and I have no plans apart from watching Pretty Little Liars, I will study Math for one hour. And, yes, this includes Weekends and Holidays.) During this 30 minutes – 1 hour I either do homework (if I’m really busy and have a lot of Math homework) or additional problems that I find online. I also do practice problems from the book or practice with older homework assignments or past Exams. 30 minutes – 1 hour of Math a day is not that much time and after a while it becomes a routine. Think of it as taking a shower or brushing your teeth every day. It’s something that just has to be done.
One to two weeks before the Math test, I increase the time I spend studying Math and start focusing on practicing the specific problems and concepts that are most likely to be on the exam. I usually start studying for about 2 hours/day instead of 30 minutes-1 hour. About 2 days before the exam, I run through every problem type/topic that might come up on the Exam and make sure that I understand it and can do it. If I don’t understand some minor detail or forgot how to do something, I will use this time to address this minor issues. However, if you practice Math every day, you will most likely have no/very few minor issues to address and will be able to spend maximum of 4 hours studying the day before the exam and not pull an all nighter (more on this later)
Do: Ask your teacher/professor/TA/ best friend who is super smart at Math for help.
If you don’t understand a concept that you have covered in class or how to do a super challenging problem, ask somebody who is good at Math for help. Ask them to explain the concept to you. Make sure that you understand his/her explanation, that it makes sense to you, and that it’s logical. DON’T just simply memorize it, especially if it’s a specific problem that you had trouble with instead of a concept. Concepts/theorems/definitions are sometimes fine to just memorize, although it’s always better to try to understand. This way, if your memory fails on the test, logic can save you. However, specific problems should NEVER be memorized. It’s highly unlikely that the exact same problem will come up on the test. Chances are, the problem on the test will be different. Also, ask for help as soon as you realize that you don’t understand something. Don’t wait the day before the exam. Address issues that you are having preferably on the day or on the second day after you realize that you have that issue and then spend your 30 minutes-1 hour time practicing the concept and the type of questions that you don’t understand. If you still don’t understand it, then ask for help again and continue this cycle until you understand and can do the problems on your own.
Don’t: Ask that super smart person to do every single problem that you don’t understand for you.
This might sound like a contradiction to my last point but it’s actually not. What I mean by this is that you have to struggle and try to figure out every question on your own before asking for help. (This doesn’t apply to concepts/theorems/formulas, etc… If you don’t understand those, then ask for help as soon as possible. Don’t try to figure those out on your own.) The reason for trying to figure problems out on your own first is that part of Math is being able to problem solve and so you have to practice problem solving. The only way that you can practice problem solving is by spending some time trying to figure out problems that you don’t immediately know how to do on your own.
I have a 10 minute rule for this one. If I can’t figure out how to solve a Math problem for 10 minutes after looking through my notes, googling it, and trying every single thing I can come up with, I usually go and ask for help on it.
Also, don’t treat help as somebody who does your homework for you. This means don’t simply ask him/her to do every single math problem for you on your homework and assume you are studying. You are not. You are simply observing somebody else studying.
Do: Pay attention during class and don’t skip
This one is kind of obvious but you should come to every class and pay attention by taking notes and doing problems that the teacher tells you to do. If you don’t pay attention or skip classes often, it will be harder for you to understand the material or catch-up. Since Math is cumulative, it’s important not to fall behind because the more behind you fall, the harder it is to catch up. If you do miss a class, ask a friend to explain to you what you have missed.
Don’t: waist time memorizing definitions, having color coded notes, rewriting notes, creating study guides, etc…
Math is a subject based on practice, problem solving, and understanding rather then content and route memorization. Therefore, having well organized content to memorize looks nice but not that helpful. Yes, having a well organized content might help you practice because it would be easier for you to look up how to do a question from a while ago or a formula in your notebook. But you can always look up formulas or how to do problems online or in your textbook. You don’t necessarily need well organized notes for that. Also, if you will follow my 30 minutes-1 hour of Math a day advice, you will be using up so many notebooks that all of that work that you put into organizing your notebook will end up in the garbage can (or somewhere lost in your desk) pretty quickly. You can try to have a separate notebook for concepts/theorems/definitions but it would be hard for you to switch between the two and would take extra time to organize. In my opinion, that time would be better spent practicing problems.
Also, don’t spend time memorizing definitions unless you have a really weird Math teacher who explicitly states that they will be on the test. Knowing definitions word for word will not help you on the test. Knowing how to apply those definitions to solve problems will. Therefore, don’t waist your time on definitions.
When it comes to study guides, a study guide will once again be pretty useless and a waist of time. Instead of a study guide, create a study plan. Write out the topics that you need to study and the time that you will spend practicing each topic. And that’s the only thing that should be on your study plan. Don’t waist time writing out concepts, formulas, theorems, drawing out graphs in 50 different colors, etc….
If you are going to be given formulas on the test, don’t spend any time memorizing formulas. Just spend some time practicing applying them. If you will not have access to formulas on the test but you need to know them, then spend about 30 minutes memorizing formulas and the rest of the time practicing them. Also, it might be useful to memorize some stuff that often comes up such as cos(0)=1, cos(pi/2)=0, etc…
Do: Keep your work organized when doing practice problems and practice proper notation
Practice doesn’t necessarily makes perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect. Therefore, it’s important to use proper notation when doing practice problems and keeping your work organized. Half of getting an A on the Math test is understanding but the other half is not making careless mistakes. Keeping your work organized and using proper notation will help you make less careless mistakes. If you are often getting problems wrong when practicing due to careless mistakes, work on organizing your work better. Also, once you do enough practice problems, certain notations and ways of solving problems will become a habit and almost automatic, which is why it’s important to use proper notation and proper ways of solving problems. If you don’t use proper notation, it will be harder for you to relearn the new notation in the future. Therefore, it’s important to get it right when practicing.
Don’t: Try out new methods of solving problems, new notations, etc… the day before the test
If you have a certain way of solving problems or a certain method that you like to use to do multiplication that always worked for you in the past, don’t start learning new ways of doing things that you already know how to do the day before the test. During this time, you have more important things to worry about. Also, relearning how to do something that you already know how to do is a very difficult process and will take a lot of time, more time than you have the day before the test. It will also feel very confusing and increases your chances of making mistakes on the test.
If you want to practice new techniques of doing old stuff, do it during your summer break, not the day before the test.
Do: Study Math problems under similar conditions that you will have on the test
What I mean by this is, if you are allowed to use formulas, practice problems together with a formula booklet in front of you. If you are not allowed to use formulas, memorize them as soon as possible and practice problems without having them in front of you. If you are allowed to use a calculator, always practice with a calculator. If you are not allowed to use a calculator, always practice without a calculator. Also, never use online tools to solve parts of problems for you, such as online derivative calculators or online graphing calculators. By using those tools, you are cheating. (I personally do not have an issue with cheating in terms of ethics but this is a topic for another time) While this cheating might help you get an A on homework, it will harm you in the long run, since you will not be able to use those tools during the test. Therefore, you have to learn how to do Math without having those online resources available to you. The only appropriate use of those online tools is to use them to double check your work.
Don’t: Pull an all nighter the day before the test
As I have already mentioned, about 50% of your success on a Math test depends on your ability to not make careless mistakes. In order to not make careless mistakes, you have to be able to concentrate on the test during the test. If you have pulled an all nighter, it will be harder for you to concentrate and you increase your chances of making careless mistakes, even if you know all of the material really well. You will most likely not learn that much new material by pulling an all nighter and you do increase your chances of screwing up the test simply by being too tired to perform well on it. In my opinion, the risk is simply not worth the reward.
Don’t: Study on the day of the test
Studying on the day of the test is most likely to do more harm then good. You will not be able to learn many new techniques and hour before the test, since the majority of things in Math require a lot of practice. However, you have a really high chance of confusing yourself, stressing yourself out, and making more mistakes on the test. If you’ve done your studying the way that I have described in my previous points, there is absolutely no need to study on the day of the test. Instead, you should relax, get something to eat, hang out with friends (and don’t talk to them about anything Math related), etc… Unless you have a really bad memory or some issues with your brain (sorry if I offended somebody but I did warn that this blog will not be PC), you will not forget what you’ve learned over the past weeks from morning until your Math exam. So just chill and relax before the test. You’ve done everything that you could do and an additional hour of studying will not help you that much anyways but has potential of making things a lot worse.
So this are the main points of how I study and don’t study for a Math exam. There are plenty of other smaller points that I can include so I might end up making a Part 2 to this post but I did cover the main topics. Also, keep in mind that what works for me might not necessarily work for you.
Feel free to share how you study for Math in the comments below,
Good luck on your Math exams,