Monday, May 13, 2013

Linda Lando Guest Blog: Taking a Math Test

Linda Lando is an expert on all things math. Thank you for sharing!


Whether you’re an adult, teenager, or school-age student, taking math tests is a normal part of your school life.  Regardless of your age, you’re busy with multiple commitments between work, family, and extra-curricular activities.  Here are a few tips that will help you to get a strong result by prioritizing, streamlining, and optimizing the precious time that you put into studying and into taking the test itself. 

Math tests are different from history, English, and other exams.  Rather than memorizing a lot of important facts and concepts and then matching or writing or filling-in-the-blanks, math and math tests expect you to perform.  What does that mean?  It’s not enough to just define what something is—although that’s essential to understanding—you have to apply your understanding of those definitions by working through actual math exercises where you absolutely must show your work.

For that reason, you can never cram for a math test or even a quiz.  This bears repeating— CRAMMING FOR MATH TESTS DOES NOT WORK!  It can actually cause more problems as you draw conclusions/hunt for patterns without sufficient background.  It can also lead to misconceptions that take more time to undo than they did to do.

The best way to study for a math test is to keep up with your class work, and to ask for help from your teacher or professor, when needed.  Even if you can’t get your questions answered during the scheduled, class time, most teachers are willing to meet with you outside of class.  Many have office hours or will make an appointment.  Generally speaking, they want to help; they’re not usually in it for the money.  If you show them that you are motivated and current with your work, that goes A LOT further with them than if you’re just trying to find an easy way out. 


Make your homework sessions a priority.  Your study area should be well lit and free of clutter.  Your tummy should not be completely empty or filled with fruit loops or gummy bears.  Give your brain a chance; you know what’s good for it.

As you do your regularly scheduled homework, check your answers in the back of the book.  Don’t check each exercise each time, unless you’re having a lot of difficulty.  Complete each section or sub-section, and then check.  Most textbooks have odd answers in the back.  And it’s not cheating to check your work.  It’s what ethical, smart people do.  It’s like driving at night with your headlights on. 

Keep a list of the exercises/concepts that are giving you some trouble.  Give yourself a chance to process the information.  Math can take a little time to sink in, especially as it gets more challenging.  Go back to those problematic exercises at the end of your homework session or even the next day when you’re fresh.  Your brain processes a lot of difficult information when you’re not thinking directly about it.  So take a break, and then see if it makes more sense.

If you still don’t get it, take your list to class and be sure to ask during the homework review.  If you absolutely can’t get your question answered then, or no one else has asked the same question, contact your teacher/professor ASAP (right after class).  Don’t wait; don’t let it go.  The class will move on, and you’ll remain stuck.  Your teachers want to help you.  Most of them chose their profession for just that reason.

Once you’ve gotten help—although you may still not understand what you were missing completely—find some homework exercises (assigned or not) that are exact replicas of the kind that are giving you trouble.   Try to find the odd numbered exercises, and make sure to look up the answers.  If you still need more help, ask for it.  Try to take some time, and then do some more exercises.  It will come to you.


Learn how to streamline your approach.  Stay focused in class.  Bikram says that this is the most difficult part of yoga.  Your math class may not be at the best time of day for your biological clock.  Welcome to the real world.  Your teacher may not have the best speaking voice, or may not give the greatest/most intriguing presentations.  That’s life. 

Take notes that are neither post-its nor novels.  A good rule of thumb is that if the teacher/professor is writing it, you should too.  You don’t have to copy the board or the power point presentation word-for-word, but pay special attention to what is presented to you in writing, especially the specific examples. Those examples can save you.  Don’t be lazy and think, that it is probably in the text; I’ll look it up later.  The text may not be written in a style that’s all that easy to comprehend.  Your teacher is your translator.  The more you write, listen, and practice, the better and more deeply you’ll understand.   You know the cliché--it’s not “rocket science”.

Use all your resources when doing your homework.  Have the textbook for reference (or even emergencies); have your class notes at hand.  Don’t be afraid/unwilling to take a minute and look something up.  Math is a foreign language, and begins with vocabulary.  Math vocabulary is a technical language at any level, and you won’t be able to either understand or communicate the concepts clearly if you don’t know what the words mean.  If you’re taking geometry or linear algebra for the first time, you should have a specific section in your binder just for vocabulary.  It is key to your understanding!


Optimize your results through preparation.  Hopefully you have plenty of warning before the test.   Whether you do or don’t, there should be a review section at the end of each chapter.  If you’re really lucky, your instructor has given you a review guide or a set of review problems.  Whether a review has been assigned or not, it is up to you to prepare.  Don’t be fooled into thinking that you don’t have to do anything the week or night before the test because the teacher didn’t assign anything.  Hello!  When an instructor doesn’t assign work before a test, it’s because he or she wants you to review on your own.  I know that’s hard to imagine, but some teachers will expect you to be self-regulating, and they don’t have the time to be responsible for you.  But you do have that time.  If you’re wondering what will be covered on the test, ask your teacher.  If a review has not been assigned, take your textbook/notes up to him/her and ask what you should be focusing on in order to prepare well.   

Do your test review in the same, conscious manner you’ve done all your previous homework—regardless of whether or not your review exercises are getting a separate grade.  Make sure to look up anything that looks foreign, or anything that has been giving you more trouble.  Your test grade, which is usually worth more weight than homework, will improve because of your quality time and effort.

After a good night’s sleep and healthy breakfast or lunch, you’re ready to go.  Calmly peruse the exam before you begin.  Check to see how many exercises there are, and estimate the time you’ll need for each.  Don’t be afraid to look at the more difficult exercises.  It’s usually not a good idea to do those first or to leave them for the last minutes.  Don’t let those shake your confidence.  If you read them carefully at the beginning of the test session, and then go back and read them again as you’re taking the test, your wonderful, mysterious brain will begin to process the information in ways that the most sophisticated of scientists cannot understand.   Use the margins of the test to write any formulas you may need and had to memorize.  Show all your work.  If you need more space to show your work, find out if you can use extra paper and make sure to turn it all in together.

Don’t let your time get sucked away by one or two exercises.  If something is giving you trouble, do what you can.  Then go back to it later.

Do not leave early!  Use all your time.  As you go through the test, put a little mark next to any exercises that you could not do or that were giving you trouble.  Then go back to those at the end, when you have time.  Unless it’s the SAT or some other standardized test that deducts more points for a wrong answer than a blank one, don’t leave anything blank.  

Breathe deeply to oxygenate your valuable brain cells.  Feel good about yourself.  No matter what the outcome, you’ve done your personal best.  If you haven’t put in the quality time, make some changes in your schedule and prepare better in the future.

By using these techniques, your grade and understanding will improve.

If you still need more help, give me a call.  I’ve been through all that you are going through now, and I have helped myself and many others to get a strong result.

twitter: @LindaLando 

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