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!
for Revising Maths
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.
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.
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.
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
Use the internet. The internet is like
having your own personal teacher who is available for you whenever
- 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 free video and audio
podcasts that you can watch on on your computer (or
even on your iPods), which is like having a maths lesson in
the comfort of your own bedroom, or in the park, or wherever you
choose. They can be be started, paused, and watched as many times
as you like until you have got it.
- 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!
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.
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!
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.
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
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.
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 Exams
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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!
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!