Study Strategies - Test Preparation

As we reach high school and college, our math grade is often heavily weighted towards test scores. Being well-prepared for success on exams, then, is essential for doing well in any math class. Every year, I meet hardworking students who simply don’t know how to effectively prepare for tests. They’ll spend hours the night before the test reading notes and looking over old homework– strategies which, I find, typically don’t yield very good results. How should one prepare for a math test, then? Read on to find out!

How do I prepare for math tests?

If I could only give one piece of advice on preparing for tests, it would be this: Practice Unique Problems. Reading textbooks, watching videos, and attending lectures can be very useful for learning how a theorem or concept works, or for clearing up questions about trickier topics. But these are only the first steps toward understanding new material. Being able to follow along while someone else solves a problem is NOT the same thing as mastery over that problem.

Then what does constitute mastery?

Once you can apply a new topic you are learning to several unique problems that you haven’t seen before, then there is a good chance that you have mastered it. It’s very important that these be new, previously unseen problems; a lot of problems can make sense after we see the answer, but that doesn’t mean that we can find the answer on our own.

The reason I define mastery this way is because tests and exams hold us to the same standards. On a math test, we’re asked to solve problems we have never seen without access to answers. Therefore, when we study for a test, we want to make sure we can use new concepts at that same level.

How do I reach mastery?

The best source of unsolved problems is homework. If you have difficulty completing your homework, the best time to get help is as soon as possible. It is important not to fall behind in any class, but especially in math classes! Often, when you learn a new concept, it’s an important building block for topics coming later in the class—meaning that if you can’t finish your homework today, you may not be able to finish it tomorrow either! Keeping on top of your homework will help you steadily build mastery, so by the time a test comes around; you’ll only have to brush up on finer points.

You will also want to have access to new, unsolved practice problems, that weren’t on your homework, covering topics that will be on the test. Sometimes you can get these from your teacher — just tell them that you want be prepared for the test, and see if they have any additional worksheets or practice exams for you to work on. Ask them a few days ahead of the test to give yourself a few days to practice! If your teacher doesn’t have these, you can solve problems you haven’t finished from your textbook or search online for new problems.

How can a tutor help prepare me for tests?

That depends! If you’re comfortable with the material, a brush-up the night before the exam might be all you need. A tutor like me can watch you complete problems to make sure that your logic and methodology are sound, answer any last-minute questions you might have, and help you find new, new practice problems.

But if you can’t complete most of your homework and/or class lectures aren’t making sense, there may be little a tutor can do at the 11th hour — ideally, we’d be working several days in advance to help you achieve mastery over the test’s material.

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