Studying For Math Is Often Different

In our work with students, it is often surprising to learn that many of them do not know or understand that preparing for a math test can be different from preparing for a test in non-mathematical subjects. Unfortunately, many students approach the study of math with a rote mentality and assume that because they have done the homework successfully, they are fully prepared for a math test.  They often confuse familiarity with a topic for mastery and are disappointed when their exam and quiz results are not commensurate with their homework performance.

We believe that the mantra “practice makes perfect” cannot be overemphasized when prepping for an exam in math.  We often cite the example of “muscle memory” in sports activities or “practicing a piece” in music as metaphors for studying for math exams and quizzes.  The upshot is that we are making the point that practicing as many different kinds of topic-pertinent problems is by far the best way to prepare for a test.  Practice should have the goal of making student responses to problems that are seen on exams partially “automatic,” like when repeated practice motion makes an athlete able to react without thinking or when a musician is “in the groove” and able to improvise.

We make the point that it is often the case that on a math test, a teacher will pose problems that are not exactly like the ones a student sees in the homework and that the student’s ability to see the bigger conceptual picture may be tested.  Thus, merely reviewing what has been learned or “looking over” old problems are not sufficient strategies for optimal preparation.  We tell students that “priming” their minds through working additional problems, especially those that have not been previously assigned or those that are considered “challenge” problems, is the best way to prepare.  We encourage parents and students to understand that successfully completing homework is a beginning to sound math understanding, but it is not the whole story when it comes to mastery.

What tips do you have when it comes to preparing for math tests?

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