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Maths Revision Hints and Tips

As I am sure you know, revising maths can be painful, and sitting the actual exam can be even worse. The aim of this little section is to offer up a few words of advice to try and make both revising and sitting exam a little less daunting, and to enable you to make the most out of your time. But remember, you know what works best for you, so I won’t be offended if you completely ignore everything I say!


Tips for Revising Mathskeyboard_arrow_up
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1. Before you start revising, get all your notes sorted, and draw up a list of all the topics you need to cover. This serves two purposes: you will definitely cover everything you need to cover, and a bit of tidying and sorting out is a nice relaxing way to ease yourself into the revision process.

2. Plan exactly when you are going to revise, and be strict with yourself. Don’t just wake up one Saturday and say that you are going to be revising all day, because you probably won’t get a lot done. Say that you will work from 10 until 11, then take a half hour break, then work until 12.30, then have some nice lunch, then do another hour, then go for a walk, and so on. If you are only revising in small chunks, and if you know the next break is just around the corner, your revision it likely to be much more focused and effective.

3. Give yourself little treats and things to look forward to. If you do a good day of revision, take the night off, watch some telly, go and see your friends, put all thoughts of maths and school to the back of your mind. Buy yourself some chocolate, but only let yourself eat it once you have achieved what you need to do.

4. Don’t just read through the textbook! The only way to revise maths is to do maths. You will do much better spending 20 minutes doing maths questions than spending two hours just reading a textbook. The more questions you do yourself, the more you will get right, the higher your confidence will be, the more you will enjoy your revision, and the better you will do in the exam.

5. Use the internet. The internet is like having your own personal teacher who is available for you whenever you like.
  - There are websites that can set you questions and mark them for you, take you through step-by-step how to tackle certain topics, and use fancy illustrations and animations that might just make that really annoying topic finally make sense.
  - There are maths games which you can play to practise crucial skills in a more fun way.
All this stuff is out there for you, so use it!

6. Don’t just practice the topics you can do. If you are really good at fractions, for example, it is very tempting to keep doing lots of fractions questions and then smiling as you keep getting them right. But unfortunately the exam is probably not going to have more than one or two fractions questions. Although it can be painful, work your way through the topics that you struggle with, because it is much better to struggle on them at home, when you have time on your side and the answers available, than it is to struggle in the exam.

7. Make sure you ask for help. Again, once you are in the exam you are on your own, but during revision you are certainly not. If you are stuck on a topic or a question, then ask one of the people from your class, or your teacher, or someone at home, or look on the internet, or use something like the Ask Nrich Forum (click here), where you can ask maths questions and get really good answers very quickly. Don’t suffer alone!

8. Practice doing questions under exam conditions. Get someone to pick you a set of questions from your textbook, or get some from a maths website, and try doing them in silence, with no help, for a fixed amount of time. This will get you used to what it will be like in the exam, how fast you need to go, and is the best way of checking that you really understand a topic.

9. Practice using your calculator! Many people seem to assume that any question that lets you use a calculator is easy, and all calculators work the same. Those people are wrong on both counts. All calculators work differently, and unless you have used yours for lots of different types of questions (trig, Pythagoras, negative numbers, indices), you might come unstuck in the exam. Find out if there are any problems early enough to correct them!

10. If it works for you, try revising with a friend for a bit of the time. You will find that one of you understands one topic more, whilst the other is a bit of an expert on another. Just by explaining things to a friend, you will find that your understanding increases, and likewise you might learn a different way of thinking about and understanding a topic.

11. Most important of all, try not to worry. A little worry is not a bad thing as it keeps you focused, but revision certainly shouldn’t be a stressful time. It should be a time where your brain gets chance to sort all the information it has been bombarded with and make sense of everything. If you follow the tips above, especially about getting yourself a revision schedule and always asking for help, you should find that revising for maths (or any other exam) is not that painful after all.  

Tips for Sitting Maths Examskeyboard_arrow_up
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1. Whatever you do, don’t stay up all night revising the night before your exam. Your brain actually needs processing time to sort out all the information you have bundled into it during your revision, and sleep and relaxation are the best way to achieve that. Lat minute cramming only makes you stressed and tired and makes it harder to access all the information at the back of your brain. Finish revising at about 6pm, have a really nice meal, and then take the night off. Nothing will disappear out of your brain, and all the information you need will be much easier to find in the morning.

2. Before you leave the house, make sure you have got all your equipment. The most important is your calculator as that is like an extra part of your brain which only you know how to use. Other important pieces of equipment are: pen, pencil, ruler, compass, and angle measurer.

3. Be careful who you talk to before the exam! When I was at uni I had this friend who was lovely most of the time but when it came to exams she was – how shall I say this?... – and absolute nightmare! She was always stressed and panicking, and after talking to her, you were stressed and panicking too! I know it is hard to do, but maybe try and keep to yourself before an exam and just be confident that you have done everything you needed to do.

4. When you get into the exam and you find your seat, it is probably going to be a good ten minutes before the exam starts. Spend the time wisely. Don’t just look around and pull faces at your friends. Read the instructions on the front of the exam paper. Not only will this get your mind focused, it might just also tell you something important. One of my best students once messed up an exam because he didn’t read that sentence on the front of the paper that said “Question 12 is on the last page”. Question 12 ended up being worth over one quarter of the total marks, and my student didn’t see it!

5. A lot of people struggle with the timing of exams.
They either go too quickly and end up with about forty painful minutes left at the end with nothing to do, or they go so slowly that they don’t get chance to finish. If you want you can see how many marks are available on the exam (it will tell you this on the front of the paper), and divide the total length of the exam by this number. This will tell you how many minutes you have per mark, and will then be a pretty good guide of how long you are supposed to spend on each question.

6. If you get stuck on a question, move on!
This especially tends to happen at the start of exams when you are still a little nervous and your brain hasn’t had a chance to warm up. Some people like to flick through the exam paper and find a question on their favourite topic, do that one first, and then go back to Question 1. Whatever works for you, but please don’t waste a load of time on a weird question that is only worth 2 marks.

7. Read the questions carefully! I know everyone always says this, but there is a reason. Maths questions, more than in any other subject, contain words which, if you don’t spot them, can send you down the completely wrong path. Imagine if you didn’t see the “not” in this question: Which of the following shapes are not regular polygons? Goodbye marks!

8. Show your working. Again, I know everyone says it, but it is just so crucial! This is especially important the older you get. In SATs just under half the total marks are for working out, but in GCSE it can be over three-quarters. And the beauty of working out is that even if you make a couple of daft mistakes, you are still picking up lots and lots of marks.

9. Check your answers at the end. I used to hate doing this in exams. You have put all that work in actually doing the exam, you have fifteen minutes left, surely you deserve a break? But if you find one of two daft mistakes (and everyone makes them), that could make the difference between a grade or a level, and those painful fifteen minutes will pass a lot quicker if you are checking answer than if you are just staring blankly in front of you.

10. Use the beauty of algebra. A lot of people hate algebra, but in exams it is brilliant because you can easily tell whether you have got the question right or wrong. If you are solving an equation, just substitute the answer back into the question and see if it makes sense. If you are factorising, then expand your answer and see if you get the question. It’s like having the answers in front of you!

11. After you walk out of the exam, don’t listen too much to what others are saying. You always have the people who come up to you and say (usually in a manic high-pitched voice) “what did you get for question 7c?... I got 2.35776, but I think I should be 2.35775… what do you think?... what do you think?”. That is not what you need. Then there are the people who say they have done rubbish and messed it up, when you know very well they have probably got 99%. Again, don’t worry about others. Take a bit of time on your own, and then when you talk to your friends, get them talking about something else apart from maths!

What Use is Maths?keyboard_arrow_up
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I won’t lie to you. The chances of you ending with a job that requires you to use Sin, Cos and Tan every day, or know all six circle theorems, is pretty remote. And when you are older, the chances of a gorgeous woman/man coming up to you and saying “I would love to go out with you, but if you could just tell me four properties of a trapezium first” are pretty slim as well.

But that is not why we study maths. We study maths because it teaches us a way of thinking. It provides us with a method of solving a whole host of life’s problems away from the classroom.

Firstly, there are the obvious ones like making sure you have enough change for the bus, deciding whether those pair of jeans that are in the sale are actually the bargain of the year or not, and working out whether buying the 2kg packet of salted peanuts is actually better value than the 200g one, and debating whether you need 2kg of salted peanuts in the first place.

But there are much bigger and much more important problems than that. I am talking about problems such as deciding where is best to go for your holidays, how big a mortgage you can afford, which new car should you buy and what type of vehicle financing is available, should you go on a diet, should you take that new job, is this person really going to be the love of your life?

These problems may not appear to have anything to do with the maths you study in school. But they do. All problems we encounter every day have something in common. They all contain a certain amount of information which must be weighed up, sorted out, and then processed in a certain order. And once that information has been processed, it must be interpreted so that an intelligent decision can be made. All this requires planning, logical thinking, maybe a bit of experimentation, and then some evaluating and testing to make sure that the decision you have reached is the best one.

Well, believe it or not, many of these skills are needed and developed when studying maths. Imagine you are presented with nasty looking question about a tower casting a shadow across the ground, and given some information about the length of the shadow and the angle of the sun, you have to work out the height of the tower. Sounds like fun, hey?

Now, let’s just think about what you would need to do to get the answer. Firstly, you would need to weight up all the information and decide what kind of problem this was. Once you are happy that it is trigonometry, next you need to present all the information in a simple, manageable way, maybe by drawing a right-angled triangle. Next up you must decide what formula you need to use and what calculations you need to do. This then requires skills such as multiplying, dividing, re-arranging formulae, calculator skills, and rounding. When you have your answer, you must then check it makes sense by putting it back into the context of the question. Does it make sense for the tower to be 3,569m high? Probably not, so you may have made a mistake, so you go back and look through your working to solve it.

That’s a lot of processes involved in answering a question, but studying maths teaches you to do all of them automatically, without even really thinking too much about what you are doing. Studying maths trains you up to be an expert problem solver, and if you can solve life’s many problems, then you will be doing alright.