How to study for a math test: 9 powerful learning tips
Math is one of those subjects that can trigger strong reactions, whether fear, boredom, or excitement. Indeed, it is a complex subject, with many formulas and rules to remember. From algebra and geometry to calculus and statistics, remembering all of this material can be daunting, but it doesn’t have to be.
“How can I possibly learn math?” you might be asking. If you have no idea how to study for a math test, you’re in the right place.
The key is practice.
Practice really does make perfect. There’s no faking it on a math test. Studying well is the key. Let’s explore some ways to do so.
Getting Ready to Study
Here are some things that you can do before you start studying to give yourself the best chance possible at acing your test. Many of these tips apply to studying for any subject, not just math.
Have a Quiet Place
You’re going to need to concentrate while you study in order to avoid procrastination.
This means no distractions.
Find a quiet spot where you can focus and won’t be disturbed. This might be in a quiet corner of the library or at a desk in your bedroom. If you like to listen to music while you study, do so, but only if it does not distract you in any way.
Set Aside Time
It helps to schedule study time. Start by blocking out small chunks of time each day. The most effective way to study is a little each day. If that is not possible, review and practice a few times a week up until your test. You want to study long enough during each session to make meaningful progress, but not so long that you struggle to stay focused or become exhausted.
In How to Become a Straight-A Student, Cal Newport reports that top-scoring students had a routine for doing their homework and studied their notes regularly.
A sample schedule may look something like this:
- Monday: Read Chapter 2 on solving linear equations.
- Tuesday: Create and take a Chapter 2 practice quiz.
- Wednesday: Go through quadratic flashcard set.
- Thursday: Recap material on prime and composite numbers.
- Friday: Meet with study group and go over this week’s material.
Consider studying in short, sharp bursts. Here’s a technique that calls for setting a timer for 25 minutes and working on one task during that time. When your 25 minutes are up, you can reward yourself with a walk, talking to a friend, or grabbing some chocolate.
Don’t Leave It Until the Last Minute
Studies have shown that trying to cram the day before a test - or worse, the morning of a test - doesn’t work well. At that point, it’s too late for your brain to take in new information.
Avoid this by going over your class notes from day one. Doing so means you won’t have to cram to remember everything the night before.
In addition to reviewing your notes on an ongoing basis, here is a good study strategy as a test draws near. It’s called the “3-2-1” method.
- 3 Days Before Your Test: Go over terms and formulas and run through a couple of practice problems.
- 2 Days Before Your Test: Spend a short amount of time going back over the formulas and concepts and do another, longer round of practice problems.
- 1 Day Before Your Test: Review the notes in your study guide, if your teacher has provided one, and do one problem for each formula or concept. Or, use your own list of terms and formulas, and do a problem for each.
Get Your Equipment Ready
Make sure you have all the equipment you need to succeed.
You will need a pen, paper, your textbook, a calculator, and anything else that might be useful. For example, you might want to use colored pens to highlight different formulas and post-it notes to highlight key points.
Remember to Take Breaks
Our brains work best in short, sharp bursts. On average, we can only focus for about 90 minutes at a time, which we should follow with a 20-minute rest. Taking regular breaks when you’re studying will give your mind a rest. You can take a walk, get some fresh air, grab a bite to eat, or make yourself a drink. Exercise has also been proven to improve memory recall and help information sink in more quickly.
Prepare for Class
Last, but by no means least, prepare for class. Turning up for class unprepared means you’ll fall behind and waste a lot of time getting yourself up-to-date when preparing for tests. If you’ve not put your best foot forward in class, start doing so now!
How to get ready for class:
- Always complete your homework and bring your materials - textbook, paper, pencil, calculator, etc.
- Read ahead so you have some understanding of what you can expect in the upcoming lesson.
- Review your notes from the previous class session to help cement what you were taught.
How to Study for a Math Test: 9 Top Tips
Now that you have everything in place, what comes next? Here are nine study strategies specific to math.
1. Get Acquainted with Your Textbook
Your math textbook will likely be your main study resource. It has all the information you need, including important examples. Review the relevant sections in your book to be sure you understand the material to be covered on the test. Review older concepts, as needed. Remember, math builds on itself!
If you don’t understand something, ask your teacher for help. You will want to arm yourself with as much knowledge as possible before you start studying. This will help you avoid frustration and make it far easier to retain information.
Note: This is another good reason to begin your studying early. If you wait until the last minute, you will not have access to your teacher for important questions in the days leading up to the test!
In addition to your textbook, Quizlet flashcards, such as this set on probability terms, can help you better understand key phrases and concepts.
2. Make a List of Need-to-Know Concepts and Formulas
Having a list of the formulas that are likely to be on the test is critical. Include concepts covered in your textbook and ones you’ve gone over in class. As you review your list, if there’s something you don’t understand, ask your teacher or a classmate. Or, do further online research until you understand the concept.
How to make a list:
- Go through your textbook and class notes and make a list of important terms, definitions, and formulas.
- Consider keeping an ongoing list of formulas and terms throughout the school year, and add to your list as you learn new concepts.
- For formulas, include a sample equation for each formula to show how it works.
3. Review and Rework Problems
Not only do you need to know the formulas, terms, and other rules in math, but you must know how to apply them in different situations. When reviewing for a test, don’t just review a math problem once. Instead, practice similar types of problems again and again until you know why each part of the formula or rule works the way it does. It can help to write down the steps necessary to arrive at the correct answer.
Again, this is a time that you can access supplemental materials. For example, Quizlet math sets, like this set on arithmetic integers or this one on pre-algebra, can help reinforce the key concepts needed to solve the problems at hand.
As you study, choosing good practice problems is key to getting your head around difficult concepts. Here are some hints for choosing good practice problems:
- Select problems you got wrong during past homework and study sessions.
- Scour your textbook for problems you haven’t yet completed.
- Ask each person in your study group to come up with a practice problem.
- Ask a family member to create a problem set for you.
- Look online for relevant practice problems.
4. Practice Math Problems Daily
This is a repeat, but it bears repeating: As much as possible, practice math problems daily. Remember, practice makes perfect. Reviewing the formulas or other terms until you’ve perfected them will cement that material in your brain and allow you to apply it more quickly when the time comes.
Think of yourself as an athlete that practices the same move over and over until you can do it with your eyes shut.
5. Try Memorization Techniques
It can also help to try out some memorization techniques so that the terms and formulas stick in your head. What works for one student might not work for another, so experiment to discover what your brain likes best. Here is one example:
There are plenty of other memorization techniques, also called mnemonic devices, that you can also try. For example,
- Creating stories around the formulas so you know which part of the equation comes next
- Giving each concept or formula a vivid image or color
- Using acronyms and giving the letters different attributes. For example, if you’re studying trigonometry and need to remember TOA-SOH-CAH for recalling trig ratios, you might assign each letter a word that makes up a story, like “Tommy On A Ship Of His Caught A Haddock.”
6. Partner Up or Create a Study Group
Two minds are better than one (and three, four, or five are often better than two.) Team up with a classmate or two for study sessions. You’ll be able to help each other out and bounce ideas off of one another when you get stuck.
There may be a problem that you don’t understand, but your study partner does, or vice versa. When you are stuck, have your partner explain it. It can really help to hear an explanation presented a bit differently from the one in your textbook.
Here are some top tips for getting the most out of a study group:
- Keep your study group to between 3 and 5 people.
- Meet regularly to go over the material. Once a week is great.
- Ask your group for help with formulas or concepts you don’t understand and let them do the same.
- “Teach” each other the material you’re learning. Research shows that teaching something to someone else helps you remember it better.
7. Review Your Notes Before Each Study Session
Just as it helps to prepare ahead of time for class, prepare for your study session. Review the material you’ve covered since your last session, and identify what you do and do not understand.
Also, before you get started, go over the problems and notes you covered in your previous session. Repeating what you’ve learned will help it stick in your brain and will provide you with more opportunities to practice.
You may choose to do this as a study group, rather than on your own, but don’t spend too long on this step. Set aside just 5-10 minutes of your 60-minute study session to review your past notes.
It’s a good idea to create a group study sheet. After each session, write out all the formulas and concepts covered, and continue to add to the guide as you study. By the time your exam arrives, you will have a polished study guide that you can use for review.
Note: This may seem redundant on top of the list of formulas, terms, and rules you’ve created or the study guide your teacher has handed out. But, remember, practice and repetition are the keys to mathematics success!
8. Take a Practice Test
A math test is completely different from normal classroom learning. You won’t have any help from your classmates or textbook, and you will be timed, which adds pressure to the situation.
Prepare yourself by finding some math problems and pretending they’re a practice test. Do it properly by setting yourself a time limit and turning off your phone. Whatever you do, don’t be tempted to look at your notes!
9. Take Care of Yourself on Test Day
Once the day of your test has arrived, is there anything else you can do to prepare? Yes, there absolutely is.
Before taking a test:
- Get a good night’s sleep so you’re well-rested.
- Eat a solid, healthy breakfast so hunger doesn’t derail your test-taking.
- Read over your notes one last time, but don’t try to study new information. It’s likely that nothing will stick this late in the game.
- Take some deep breaths, if you’re feeling nervous, and sip plenty of water.
- Make sure you read each question twice before answering.
Math can be hard. Knowing how to study for it can be even harder. But, if you start studying early and follow all of the tips laid out here, you’ll have the best chance possible of doing well on your tests and acing the course.
Happy studying, and good luck!