How to Pass a Math Test

Not many people like math tests. They could keep you awake worrying, but "stop!"; you see, all too often, people make mistakes that could easily be remedied by reviewing their answers in special ways. However, even the worst math performance could be turned around into a successful endeavor by breaking old habits and adopting new, better tools, and attitudes for success featured here. Given this, here are some tried and true things that you can do to help yourself right now.


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    Prepare for class. This is your main job (full-time if possible), and "choose to enjoy yourself doing your job": Before the new semester classes start, at vacation time, don't take the time off to relax, but, instead, get your math text (buy one or pay a deposit, if necessary) as soon as your prior semester lets out and as soon as the texts are posted. Then, when you get the text, inquire with your teacher, if possible, where to start, but start studying in any case. By the time classes start, you will have a solid handle on the subject.

    But, it doesn't end there (prepare like that for any difficult/tricky class such as physics, biology, chemistry, law, computer language, or foreign language, etc.).
    • Pre-read each chapter and attempt to pre-do the problem set the day before they will be taught. Get extra traction, with this solid footing; you will know enough to sit at the front of the class and answer questions rapidly when asked, and ask questions for anything that may surprise you!
    • Engage in class: Near the front of the class, sitting up, leaning forward to make "killer" notes, fully prepared (neither lounging nor being stiff). Then answering questions spit-fire. It just reinforces the lesson! If you do this, and if you halfway like math (or if you previously hated math), it is almost guaranteed that math will take on new meaning for you, and you may even find yourself taking home the highest grade of the entire class! Even a student who failed his math previously may shock himself by scoring honors through using this and the following details of the method. You can, too!
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    When you go home, take your notes and/or textbook. If you didn't make any notes, spending all class doodling, or made bad notes, it's best to take home your textbook. If you make okay notes, take both. If you make awesome or "killer" notes on all of what your teacher says, you may not need your textbook, but you should take it home anyway, just in case.
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    Review the new concepts and processes, plus math tables, if any, that you need. All too often, one makes the greatest flaws not because of not understanding the content, but because one makes a mistake on applying it. But, it's best to look over them, to be refreshed.
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    Study the math theory. Math theory is how to understand and do thought processes, starting with the simplest things. To study this, you can:
    • Look at the textbook. This is the basic method, unless you make good notes. However, the downside of using the textbook is that (i) you don't have those special connections that come with good notes and (ii) the textbook isn't usually very direct but is teaching the basics while you often need projections/variations of those.
    • Look at your notes. This is only a valid option, if you take good (killer) notes. If you, in some strange space-time paradox, take good notes and still fail math tests, then you should improve your notes (assuming the instructor covered the topic). They're usually faster and easier to learn from than your textbooks.
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    Eat a good breakfast. It's hard to work on an empty stomach because of the mind-body connection (your lifestyle, good nutrition, and enough exercise) affect your enthusiasm and vigor. So, it's only natural that people who eat a balanced breakfast, with some protein and long lasting complex carbs, do better on tests: They're less stressed and have more long-term energy. And, don't overeat to avoid focusing on the discomfort.
    • Drink some water to keep hydrated. But, be careful drinking too much before a test because then you will have to use the bathroom, and lots of times you have to wait an hour before you are allowed to leave the room! There's nothing worse then trying to think while "holding on".
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    Take the test. Scan over the test as soon as you get it. Do the easy ones (that you know) quickly, first, then go back to the harder ones to work on them. Often, using some steps of the ones you know can help you do the more difficult ones.
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    Know how to use the whole time allotted for the math test. Start off by answering all of the questions you can do more quickly, even if you find nothing that seems to stand out, for finishing the other questions you didn't get at first. Mark a very small "x" next to your doubtful work results, to check later. Go through the exam again, erasing any tiny "x" that you can, repeating this elimination process -- until you come to a standstill, as follows:
    • Check/redo doubtful questions that you had marked, that you have tried/answered, without looking at your original answers to see whether another process comes to mind. If you come up with the same answer, make a small check mark, and proceed with redoing/double-checking the next unsure answer.
    • Don't accept either of the answers yet, if your second answer is different from your original solution: try again. This third try may confirm one of your two prior answers, otherwise decide which is probably better, and move on.
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    Master the art of multiple choice. Multiple choice questions are an art form. You need to have studied enough to know how to solve the problems independently in order to achieve high score. Go through the multiple choice, filling in answers by working out the solutions on extra/scrap paper.
    • On the original question sheet (that you are allowed to write on), place a small check mark beside the questions of which you are most certain and an "x" beside the ones you are not. This enables you to easily go back to identity questions that you should spend more time on. If your entire page starts as "x"s, bear in mind that it may sometimes take several tries, combing through the exam before check marks begin to replace the "x"s.
    • On your second run through of the exam, go to the ones you marked with an "x" and spend more time on them. Cover up your original work and answers, and rework the question on scrap paper. This will help you by going in with a fresh perspective and possibly get the correct answer.
    • Keep going through the exam in this process, and if you have time spend some ensuring that your multiple choice answers that you marked with a check mark are really correct.
    • It would be advisable to cross out/eliminate choices (on the sheet that you are able to write on) if the choice is probably wrong in order to limit the possible better choices, but some exam questions may not be suitable for this (i.e., it is not advisable to cross out strictly numerical responses until you try the problems, but in some worded questions there might be an internal contradiction or misuse of terms that makes the answer clearly incorrect).
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    Master the art of math homework. Some student are stricken by an inability to pass math, until learning a method for mastering math homework.
    • Have someone (a tutor) to help you work out of a question that you may be at a roadblock (but use the tutor sparingly).
    • Get a math book that works out similar problems in full (i.e., with a detailed answer key), so that you can learn how they were solved.
    • Work out each question and refer to the answer manual once you have finished. If you don't know how to solve some, refer to your math book or contact your tutor for guidance. Even if you rely heavily on the answer manual, try to finish the questions without copying the key.
    • Put aside the answer manual, and redo the questions a second time -- all of them. If you miss any, spend time at the end trying to work out the answer until you know how to do it. If you still can't get an answer, go to the detailed solutions manual or the tutor until you have it understood well enough to solve it yourself. But you are not finished. You keep up this process until you can answer all of the questions without any assistance. Once you answer all of the questions without any assistance whatsoever, you can stop -- although one more go through wouldn't hurt. Keep this process up each day, and bear in mind that although it requires time, still you will be rewarded very well when it comes to exam time.
    • Before exam time, ensure you take the time to redo all of the questions that you did in homework "at least" one more time through, and preferably until you get all of them right. If you do this, you will succeed remarkably at math - even if you feel like you cannot pass math, your marks will increase dramatically.
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    After you get the marked test back, review your mistakes. As it's said on The Zombie Survival Guide by Max Brooks, "The zombie may be gone, but the threat lives on." Well, in this case, the test may be gone, but the results live on. So it's best to get in some early study for your final or midterm exam, and "plant the seeds."
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    Take your math scores to the next level, not only ensuring that you get all of your homework done as described above (by redoing the homework until it is all correct--and then giving it another go), but about a week or maximum two weeks before the exam, not only continue to do the homework -- but also take extra time each night to redo every single past homework problems that will be tested on the exam. If the exam covers 12 homework assignments, for instance, continue to not only do regular homework, but spend the time (time yourself) to finish the past 12 homework assignments within, say, 6 to 12 days, giving yourself one day to strengthen the overall review before the exam! If you continue to do all the regular assignments as described above, and do a review of the entire scope being tested over a week or two, it is almost guaranteed that your marks will skyrocket, and you might amaze yourself with the results!
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    Experiment, if you have a problem you can't figure out -- or if you can't remember a rule: Use simple numbers to simplify it to its easiest form to work through by, for instance, substituting in the smallest numbers possible to determine the solution. As an example, if you need to know what direction a parabola opens, try substituting in the equation a 0, a 1, and a -1 (easy, simple numbers), and see whether it gives you a sense of the direction. If you need more input, substitute in other odd numbers, or try evens (0, 2, -2) or multiples of ten for larger numbers. Trying to simplify a problem by such number substitutions often results in finding the solution to a very tricky question.[1]
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    Choose between reading the text and getting problems done: The solution is always to do problems (sigh of relief). How To Become A Straight-A Student (published in 2007 by Three Rivers Press), outlines how you should do all of the problems for the math assignment and only do the readings if, when they are covered in class, you don't understand the material (problems with solution sets are the very best, so opt for classes that have fully worked out solution manuals or go get a solutions manual for your topic, if one is available).
    • Do the whole assignment over to reinforce part you got right, also -- but when pressed for time, the marked missed-problems method will allow time for other activities in your life such as sports and writing for the school newspaper! What could be better than making the grades and having a life, too?
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    Learn more than one way to understand the subject (develop depth in whatever you are studying) and enjoy the good results! This is like learning the principles, theorems and steps, but also learn any shortcuts to get the answer, but always work it out on the test as fully as is required by your teacher.
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    Think positively to improve your confidence and effectiveness on the test.
    • Nod "Yes!" and smile as you mentally pronounce the terms/topics while taking a final scan over your techniques/methods. This can cause confidence--instead of being nervous before the exam.
    • Be fresh and alert; so have a enough sleep the night before your test. Don't stay up too late while studying; that could cause you to be tired and not think so clearly on the test.


  • Study with the same state of mind and concentration as you would plan on while taking the test. Control excessive anxiety that can cause you to lose focus. Be calm and purposeful to avoid odd mistakes. Avoid negativity/tenseness when taking the test: otherwise you won't remember everything, but will be worried; so keep your mind cool and deliberate.
  • Remember that dedicated/top students study tricky subjects (math, science, foreign language, advanced vocabulary) and do their homework for--at the bare minimum--14 hours per week (2 hours each day), often reaching 30 or more hours per week. The smarter/harder you work, the better you can expect to do, regardless of your present state of achievement. Also, intelligence is formed by knowledge, and significantly changeable. So if you had thought of yourself as "not a good student", you can surprise yourself with how far enough hard work can take you.[1]
  • Invest in a good calculator. Find a calculator that simplifies making calculations, preferably one that allows you to insert brackets within brackets, for instance (for higher level math). The inexpensive calculators can often serve well for this type of need, although the life span of the calculator can sometimes be as little as two to three months.
    • Scan the manual in full on how to operate the calculator, and then thoroughly read the relevant parts; then begin working with it well in advance of a math test.
    • Buying a back-up calculator is a wise idea. There is nothing worse than coming to a math exam with a dying calculator, and having to rely on the instructor's model, which may not operate in a straightforward manner.
  • Review and revise notes on anything that isn't your strongest point and focus on that. For variety, you can have a family member or friend quiz you.
  • Always study the night before. Take advantage of any time that the teacher may give you before the test to refresh keyword terminology if it may help.
  • It's almost impossible to have a math test and not get somewhat stressed: So, don't worry, if you do get stressed. Never get too tense when taking the test: otherwise you won't remember everything, but will be worrying; keep your thoughts positive and cool. Even wear a rubber band on your wrist to keep your attention on your exam (if feeling anxiety). Also, chewing gum helps relieve muscle tension during exams, thereby releasing stress. Taking in four deep breaths, counting for four second for each in and out breath, also reduces anxiety. Thinking about your extremities, your fingers and toes, helps you get grounded despite anxiety. Much of this advice and more can be found in the Anxiety and Phobia Workbook by Dr. Edmund Bourne.


  • Don't get discouraged if you do your homework on a math topic and find that you get nearly every question wrong. Many of the very brightest students oftentimes go through the questions the first time through, getting many of the answers wrong. A top student sometimes would get the entire page wrong on the first go. What differentiates the top students, however, and as outlined above, is that they look at the solutions manual and figure out what they did wrong. Then, they try the exercise again a second time and even a third time until they get the answers correct. Mistakes are part of the learning process, so value each one you make as an opportunity to learn something new.
  • One kind of calculator is often supplied to all participants for standardized testing. The rules are strict and often will not allow using your own calculator and no personal scratch paper at all (nor having your bag or materials available).

Sources and Citations

  1. 1.01.1"The Secrets of Top Students: Tips, Tools, and Techniques for Acing High School and College". Stefanie Weisman. ISBN-10: 1402280793

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Categories: Tests and Exams