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Mostly Math's Study Tips

First, the General Stuff:

Try your homework on your own first

The first step is figuring out where your problems are. No one else can figure that out for you, and if you don't honestly attempt your homework, you'll never know what you can or can't do. Someone else can help you learn the material, but this process is much more efficient if you already have a list of questions or topics that you need help with.

Learn the way your teacher wants you to do the questions

Many teachers want you to do things "their way" so it's important to have clear, complete examples in your notes from which to study. We have all had a teacher who refuses to give credit for having the right answer, but the wrong form, or method. Instead of getting into a power struggle, and getting on your teacher's bad side, learn what is expected of you and use that as your model.

Learn the "vocabulary" of your math class

Many students struggle on tests because they learn to just look at the "math part" of the question and go on instinct. They do not actually read the question, often because they wouldn't really understand the words in the question anyway. When studying, pay particular attention to the wording of questions. Learn what is of expected of you when the question says, "Simplify" or "Evaluate." Most students don't realize that sometimes half the questions actually tell you exactly what to do, if you just understood what the instructions said!

Don't think that just doing the assigned homework is always enough practice

One of the biggest mistakes math students make is thinking that they should be fine because they did the assigned homework. Most students are not adequately prepared for tests if all they've done is keep up with the homework. You may be glad at first if you find yourself with a teacher that only assigns a handful of homework questions per night, but these are exactly the students who wonder why their marks aren't higher. You must continue to do questions -- even the ones your teacher didn't assign -- until you know you understand it. Otherwise, you're just fooling yourself.

Review questions from many different days' homework at the same time

It's easy to focus on one kind of question at a time, but you have to learn how to do questions when they appear in any order. One helpful strategy is to write out several different kinds of questions on separate index cards. On the back, work out a full solution. When studying, reach into the pile and pick a card at random. When you can successfully complete any question you pull out, then you know you're ready for a test.

Be clear about which material is fair game for tests

Will tests be based on questions from the text book only? Which topics will be covered on the test? If you don't know, ask! Warning, you do run the risk of sounding like one of those annoying students who isn't interested in something that isn't on the test. Unfortunately, though, you have to do whatever it takes to get the best marks possible, and studying the right material is a part of earning the highest marks possible.

Try to answer questions in class, don't just ask them

It's good to ask questions, but you should also try to give answers. It's good practice, and teachers will appreciate your efforts.

Let your teacher know when you have problems

Often teachers know which topics are hard for students, and they might have extra handouts or resources for just such an occasion. This feedback can also help the teacher see which topics they might need to spend more time on in class, or might need to explain in more detail. If no one speaks up, then the teacher won't know there are problems.

Go for extra help

Many teachers are happy to offer extra help, and are happy that you care enough to spend extra time outside of class. Sometimes you might learn even more, such as which are likely test questions, because teachers can let extra information slip (often without realizing it) in extra help sessions. Subconsciously, the teacher may give out helpful information. And, when it comes time to marking your test, your teacher may also be subconsciously "pulling for you" because of your efforts outside of class, and they might give you the benefit of the doubt when marking.

Start working right from Day One

The first few days of class can seem so easy that you might think that you don't need to get serious just yet. But, this is your opportunity to get into good habits, when they're easy enough to keep. You might even try reading ahead a bit. Make good use of your time in the beginning because you'll be wishing you had it back later in the semester. Of course, if you didn't get off to a good start, decide to get back on track right now. Better late than never.

One more thing . . .

If you're not writing anything down, you're not really studying. We always say that to prepare for a test, you should practice doing exactly what you'll be asked to do on the test. If you had a piano exam, you would practice your pieces over and over again, not just stare at the sheet music saying, "Yeah, I know that." The same goes for math.

Specific Tips: Before, During and After Class

Before class:

  • Review the last day's notes and homework questions. Next day's lesson will make more sense if you have a solid understanding of the work that came before.
  • Read over the new material you expect to be covering in class ahead of time. Try to figure out just a little bit of the next lesson on your own before class. High school students are typically not taught to do this, but this is an absolutely essential university skill. Why not get in the habit now?
  • Get a good night's sleep.
  • Tell your teacher if you know you will be missing a class. Ask what the homework will be and whether you can get copies of the lesson notes or come in for a make up session.

During class:

  • Pay attention. As tough as it may be to concentrate some days, being attentive is essential if you want to understand what's going on.
  • Sit where you can see the board. (Or wear your glasses, even if you think they look bad)
  • Avoid Distractions. If you need to sit away from your friends or away from the window, then do it.
  • Don't ask people sitting next to you questions while the lesson is going on. You may mean well, and want to just get a little point clarified, but if you stop focusing on the lesson while the teacher is still going, you'll only get further behind. If you think it's appropriate, ask the teacher. This way, you (and the person you're asking) won't miss more information and set you further behind.
  • Copy the homework down before leaving class.

After class:

  • Do your homework right away. Often, students understand the lesson in class, but then wait too long to attempt the homework. By that time, you may have forgotten too much. Doing the homework right after class makes a huge difference in how well you remember the material. This also gives you more time to get extra help if you need it.
  • Attempt every question in your textbook (unless your teacher specifically said to avoid certain questions). Teachers often only assign "even" or "odd" questions for homework. Do you really think one set of questions is better than the other? Do you really think that your teacher picked the "evens" instead of the "odds" for a special reason? No, it's usually just convenient. In fact, teachers know that most students don't even look at the other questions in the textbook, and that's why test questions often come right from the book --they're the questions that the teacher didn't assign.
  • Organize your binder. Recopy your notes if they are too messy. Punch and file loose sheets of paper before they get crumpled or lost.