How to study for a math test

Sure, we have all heard our math teachers say "Study for your test tomorrow." While we can all agree the importance of studying and getting prepared for an exam, not many math teachers actually tell you HOW to study. I am sure we have all spent time making flash cards, staring at our notes, or watching last minute videos on youtube, only to realize the test results often don't correlate to our effort. Before long, these upsetting experiences and test results created a scar in our minds, that statement we have all heard before: I am just not good at math.
The truth of the matter is, many people who have expressed their inability to understand and perform well on mathematics simply don't know how to study for a math exam. After all, those negative signs and multiple choice questions are often so tricky, even though you calculated every step correctly until the very end, all it took was one single mindless error that can well ruin the entire result. If we closely examine the nature of a math exam, we start to realize how it's very different than all of the other exams we take for other school subjects. It's time for us to rethink what it takes to ace a math test.
First, you must thoroughly understand the structure of the exam you will take as much as possible beforehand. Even though a million students are taking Algebra 1 this year, I guarantee there will be thousands of variations on the same chapter test. That's because every math teacher organizes and thinks differently, and hence the test will also be different. If your teacher likes to integrate 50% multiple choice and 50% free response, then it makes no sense for you to create flashcards the entire night. Instead, you need to spend some time doing some multiple choice problems. On the other hand, if your teacher emphasizes on showing work and justifying your answers, you better start to review all the correct terminologies you have learned for the chapter. Understanding your teacher's style of teaching and test format is the first step to success.
Second, you have to put yourself through a similar testing environment. Yes, we all know the best way to learn math is by doing. But if you are doing math problems with Netflix on, chances are your mental muscles are practicing the right way. It's like you decide to run the treadmill while eating cookies. If you generally have an hour for the test, then give yourself an hour to do a certain number of questions. Not only do you want practice, you also want to train your mind to be under similar time pressure and absolute silence. That way, you will truly have a sense of how much you know, and how much you get distracted while you are testing. Our minds are always jumping so we need to be disciplined by staying focused. Be honest, how many of us have wasted test time pondering about stuff that's absolutely irrelevant to the test? 
Last but not least, study together. Collaboration is the way to go. Simply invite a friend to take the same practice test as you, quietly of course. Then exchange papers and grade each other's exams. Through the process of discussions and questions, it elicits the highest form of learning, which is teaching. When we are able to teach another person, that's when we have truly mastered the concept. Sure, you might not know every problem, but that's exactly why your friends are there. This method especially works in college, and a study has been conducted in Berkeley for this exact phenomenon. A college math professor at UC Berkeley realized a group of students are doing poorly in his class, and he decided to find out the key differences between his successful students and not so successful students. The key difference was what they did after class. Those successful students gather together and do problems at the library for a few hours, while the not so successful students spent DOUBLE THE TIME in their own dorm rooms individually, trying to study for the exam. 
After the professor found the key difference, he decided to create a control group for the not so successful students. He grouped them together and told them to meet in the library to study together. After two months of studying collaboratively, the students in the control group have significantly higher passing rate than before. It just goes to show how important it is to have peers as your study buddies (granted your peers won't further distract you from learning, again...discipline)
All in all, knowing math is not enough. Having speed and accuracy is what brings success in mathematics. The best way to foster that skill is not by innate ability, but by carefully understanding your teacher's style of pedagogy, by putting yourself in a similar testing environment, and by collaborating and teaching your peers the content. I hope this blog is helpful to you all, and don't feel discouraged when you don't immediately get the results you want. There are many people like you who are fighting the uphill battle. Without struggles, there's no progress.
Good luck on your next exam!


Johnny L.

Effective UCLA Master Grad Math Teacher ready to help you!

50+ hours
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