Exam Technique

Maths Tips

Note: In any exam, make sure you know the rules and follow them. The suggestions here are general and might not be appropriate in your exam.

Show All Your Working
I know, you've been told that so many times that you're sick of hearing it. But it really is important - you can pick up a lot of extra marks.

If you get an answer wrong through a silly mistake you can still often get marks for the working. And in some cases marks are only available for the working - there are some questions where even if you get all the answers right, you can't get the marks without certain working being show. For example, if you're asked to find the turning points on an equation there might be one mark that you can only get if you explicitly state "f'(x)=0".

How much working to put? It's better to put too much than too little. I always tell my students to work on the assumption that the examiner is an idiot!

Know Your Calculator
Some maths exams allow calculators, some don't. Where you are allowed to use a calculator, it's important to know exactly how yours works. Don't go and buy a brand new zillion function calculator the day before the exam! You need to know where all the functions are and what all the indicators mean. If you've lost the manual, Google it. That's especially important for higher maths where you need to know if you're working in degrees or radians.

And, of course, make sure that you have spare batteries.

Don't Be Proud
We all have brain fails every now and then, especially under stress. If you suddenly find that you can't work out 210/5 in your head then write it down and do it by long division. The examiner isn't going laugh at you and nobody else will ever know. Better that than stubbornly guessing at 41 and losing marks.

Look For Clues
If you don't know how to start a question, look for clues in the wording. Certain words often suggest certain techniques - for instance "gradient", "area" or "maximum".

Don't miss "Hence or otherwise...", it's a great clue that what you've just done can help in the next part of the question. Even if the question doesn't say "Hence" it's worth checking if an earlier part of the same question might be connected in some way.

If you're really stuck as to how to approach a question then try thinking through in your head the various things you've learned and seeing which of them might apply. For example on a triangle question: "Pythagoras? No, not a right angle. So not SohCahToa either. Sine rule? No, no angles. Cosine rule? Aha!"

And if all else fails, look through the formula sheet - sometimes the answer's right there!

Sanity Checking
If possible, do a quick check to make sure that your answer "makes sense". This is easiest in questions involving real world situations. For instance, if you're asked to find the average age of a class of students then the answer 73 is unlikely! Similarly, a house brick is unlikely to weight 3 tonnes and the distance between home and school isn't going to be minus 2 miles.

Where the question is abstract it can be more difficult to sanity check, but you can still compare your answer with the numbers in the question to see if it "feels" right. If not, have a quick check over your working. In questions involving geometry a quick sketch of the question and your answer will often help. For instance you might be able to see that an angle is obviously greater then 90 degrees or that a point clearly isn't on a line.

Don't waste too much time on this, but a quick sanity check can help you catch a lot of silly errors - and save you some precious marks.

Relaxation Techniques
This applies to all exams, not just maths. Exams are stressful, we get nervous and sometimes panic. When that happens we don't think straight. So do some research on simple relaxation techniques you can use before and during the exam. I'm not saying you should sit in the exam hall meditating and going "om"! However a few simple things like breathing techniques and positive visualisation can help clear your mind and control fear.

Check out some more Maths Tips