Maximizing Your Success in Mathematics - by Jim Hoffman

For some success in mathematics seems to come naturally, for others it will appear to be a battle up one hill after another, and for the rest it will fall some where in between these two extremes. It does not matter into which group you fall because your goal is to be the best that you possibly can. To maximize your potential it is necessary that you address a number of areas:

Note Taking

The starting point is the realization that when material is presented in class it is a combination of visual presentation and oral communication.

What should you do?

  1. Attend class everyday.
  2. Take notes. The notes that you take are part of your learning style and what you include will not necessarily match what someone else deems to be important. Remember the degree of completeness of notes is usually based on what you already understand and how comfortable you are with the material being covered.

    For example if the lesson is on the laws of exponents and you do know the laws and their application you may conclude that all that is necessary for your notes is a series of examples while another student may require each law to be written out including a written description of how the law functions and all the necessary examples.

  3. Learn to write and listen at the same time. This is not an easy task because for a period of time your focus must be on what is happening in class. This is a skill that you must continually work on refining so it becomes second nature to you. As the teacher is presenting material copy what is being written on the board or shown by some other means. Listen as the material is orally explained and include any additional points as part of your written notes.
  4. It is sometimes more beneficial to write your notes in your own words. This process forces you to be more involved in the class and will usually make it easier for you to remember what has been covered.
  5. A note of warning. If for some reason you tend to daydream, or you are over tired, or you find it necessary to engage in conversation with someone you increase the risk of falling behind in writing notes and you will fail to hear the oral explanations being provided.
  6. It is important to note that your teacher will formulate or design exam questions based on the materials and examples covered in class.
  7. Utilize the two color approach when taking notes. Use a different color to highlight areas that are identified as important, where errors could possibly occur and any new terms that are introduced.
  8. Use the margins of your notebook to direct your attention to an important example or explanation.
  9. Actively participate in class. Remember if you do not understand some part of the lesson there may be others in the same situation and they could benefit from what you do and say. Bottom line: if you do not understand what is being presented ask questions. Take a moment or two and use your knowledge base to develop the question. It is more advantageous for you to frame the question identifying the area of concern versus saying "I don't understand". This process allows the teacher to quickly identify what you have trouble understanding. Examples of questions that could be asked.
  10. Since each class represents only one of many building blocks in a unit you should review the previous days notes at the start of each lesson. This process of continual review helps you tie the concepts together and prepares you to examine the new material being presented.
  11. At the end of each lesson (or after school) you should review the notes that you have taken. This is the best time to rewrite in your own words a quick summary of the keys points. What does this achieve?
  12. Create three special reference pages. One of the pages should highlight errors that need to be avoided, the second should be a list of all formulae covered within the course and the third should be a list of definitions categorized by unit or chapter. The last reference page will be valuable when preparing for short answer and matching questions on an exam.
  13. To make your note-taking more efficient it may help if you develop your own set of abbreviations. Some examples include: "//" - parallel lines, "iff" - if and only if, "w/o" - without, ">" - greater than, "D" - triangle

Clues and Cues Used By Teachers

  1. To stress items that are important the teacher's voice may become louder or he may speak a little slower.
  2. To emphasis certain points the teacher will usually point to the area of concern.
  3. If a teacher writes something on the board it should be considered important and be an integral part of your notes.
  4. When a teacher repeats certain facts consider them as important and make sure they are in your notes.
  5. Listen for phrases that relate to main ideas. These include: The main point is...., Note this...., Remember this...., The uses are...., The most common error is ...., This is a major point......
  6. Listen for the summary at the end of the lesson. This is the point at which all the key elements of the lesson are revisited. Listen for key words such as "finally" or "in summary" or "in conclusion".


  1. The focus of assignments and homework is to provide you with the opportunity to learn the formulae and techniques that you need to know. In very simple terms math is learned by doing.
  2. Homework is an effective learning tool when the work is done promptly.
  3. To build up an individual's skill level it is essential that assignments and homework are completed. This means that all questions should be attempted because these form the framework from which you will decide which concepts/skills have been mastered and what areas require additional help and explanation.
  4. When completing an assignment it is necessary to write out complete solutions. This process serves a number of purposes:
  5. When doing homework take time to analyze what you are doing and when you identify a special skill that is being developed include this as part of your summary at the end of each lesson.
  6. Remember that the amount of time that you spend on homework will vary on the difficulty of the new work and on your skill base.
  7. Not doing homework and waiting for the work to be covered in class the next day will provide you with the opportunity to copy out the solution to the problem but it will not provide you with the essential practice that is necessary to master a concept.
  8. Once the homework has been completed and taken up in class take a few minutes at the end of the class to include in you previous day's lesson summary a list of questions that you will do when preparing for an exam. Remember you do have the solutions to these questions. If you do not wish to rewrite the questions you could create a list of questions by citing each question's reference number.
  9. Control the amount of help you request of a teacher but do get help as soon as possible. It is more advantageous for you to ask for a hint and then attempt to solve the question by yourself. Make note of the hint because it is usually one the teacher has found to be effective when encountering this type of problem. Remember you learn math by doing.
  10. Use the assigned text as a source of additional examples that may help you with particular homework questions.
  11. Remember that when you do homework you are learning a process and not just how to do a specific problem.
  12. Taking time to explain a procedure for doing a question to a fellow classmate serves as an excellent procedure for internalizing the concept for yourself.
  13. If you have a major assignment one of the best procedures to follow is to break the assignment into smaller parts. If completing the assignment on time becomes a problem talk to your teacher in advance of the due date.
  14. Use the assignment time provided in class to do a select number of questions that come from different parts of the assignment. This will allow you to develop reference questions and solutions for the remainder of the questions found in the assignment.

Problem Solving

This area represents the most important part of a math class. For most individuals the phrase "problem solving" focuses their attention on word problems but the actual fact is that problem solving covers a variety of question levels. These include:

a) Problems that focus on testing memorization or skills:

b) Problems that require application to familiar situations (sometimes referred to as template problems)

c) Problems that require the application of skills to unfamiliar situations. These problems require a multi-step approach involving several different math skills and techniques.

What can you do?

  1. The greater your experience in math, the more types of problems you will encounter.
  2. The more complex the problem, the greater number of steps that will be required to solve the problem.
  3. Solving problems require a complete solution. Make every effort to minimize the quick solution in which you write a few lines and then check the answer if given at the back of the book or ask a classmate what answer they have determined.
  4. If you do not get the right answer do not use this as a signal to move on to the next question. Use this as the starting point to rework the problem. It is better to continue to work on a problem until you get it right rather than doing an entire assignment incorrectly.
  5. Do not convince yourself that you can do the problem after arriving at an incorrect solution without reworking the problem.
  6. Steps for solving a problem:

Take a few moments to analyze what you have done because this will now serve as a framework to solve similar problems. Include in your analysis the following: what formula and rules were used, what method was successful, how did you start the problem and does this procedure parallel what has been done with examples presented in class or found in a textbook.

Test Preparation

  1. The first element in exam preparation is the completion of all assignments and homework.
  2. The best time to get clarification in problem areas is when you first encounter the difficulty.
  3. Start studying early because math is not one of the subjects that lends itself to the concept of cramming.
  4. Develop a study schedule that will focus your efforts several days before the exam. If it is a final exam you may want to consider a schedule that includes several weeks of prep time.
  5. Ask the teacher to outline the format of the exam.
  6. If questions are to be asked just prior to an exam they should be of the type that help explain some minor detail.
  7. Review all you lesson summaries noting all formulae that have been introduced.
  8. Check to see that you can still do the homework problems. It is not enough to look at a question and its solution. Take the time to work out each question as if they were part of the exam. The list that you prepared for each lesson serves as an excellent source because if you remember, you do have complete solutions for each of the problems.
  9. Use the resources found in the text. At the end of each chapter is a unit or chapter test with an answer key usually provided at the back of the text. This serves as an excellent review because it will contain a list of all the types of questions found in that unit.
  10. If the teacher provides you with a review sheet make sure that you attempt each question and come prepared to the next class to ask questions that outline areas of difficulty. Remember to frame your questions as mentioned above.
  11. If no review is provided make up your own practice exam using some of the questions you have identified in your summary notes.
  12. Once you have worked through the questions and formula applications take a few minutes to write out a summary of the types of questions you have learned to solve, the key techniques that you used and how to identify which technique is applicable to which problem. This summary will also serve as a study guide when preparing for your final exam.
  13. One method that may help you internalize problem solving is to use the concept of talking to yourself. This idea is one in which you explain in your own words particular solution strategies or create a mental checklist of the steps that must followed. This idea of talking to yourself provides you with a mental verbal tool that may help you overcome a confusing part of a question.
  14. Use flashcards as a study aid for definitions and formulae.
  15. Use previous exams and quizzes as study tools when preparing for the final exam.
  16. Get a sufficient amount of rest prior to the test. Math tests are easier when you are mentally sharp.


Test Taking

In General:

  1. Look over the entire test to get a sense of length and identify which questions you know how to do and which ones will require more effort on your part.
  2. The order in which you do the test is entirely up to you. The sequence that is recommended is as follows:
  3. Take the time to read each question carefully and do all the parts of the question.
  4. Verify your answers by asking yourself whether or not the answer that you have determined makes sense.
  5. If you finish early check each problem or as many as time will allow.
  6. Do not let the speed at which others finish the exam influence you and your approach to writing the exam.
  7. Time is a critical component on an exam. It is recommended that you work quickly and continuously but with attention paid to legible writing and the necessity of showing all your work. If you get stuck on a particular problem leave it and move on to the next. Remember that when you work on another question it may provide you with the necessary information to solve the problem that you had left.
  8. Do not spent a lot of time on questions that have been assigned low marks. Working on the questions that you know you can solve will provide you with extra time to tackle the more difficult questions.
  9. Show you work. This provides you with the opportunity to demonstrate to the teacher how much you do know and allows the teacher to assign partial marks based on your work.
  10. It is strongly suggested that you draw a line through rather than erase something that you feel is incorrect. Why:
  11. If the problem is one that is made up multiple steps it may help to create a brief outline of the steps before actually solving the problem.
  12. Analyze your test when it is returned to you. This process will help you establish some future guidelines. These include:

Multiple Choice Questions:

  1. Although the general tendency is to look over the choices immediately after reading the question this practice should be avoided and you should try answering the question before considering the various alternatives. The idea of working out the question first focuses your attention on a possible correct choice and reduces both the "guess factor" and trying to make an answer work for a particular question.
  2. Once a selection has been made do not rush on to the next question. Consider each of the answers and the reason why each of the others should not be considered. If a question requires a lot of computation mark the question and come back to it if time permits . Rework the question on a separate piece of paper and compare this answer with your original.
  3. If you are not sure of the answer it may help to try and rephrase the original question. The idea of rephrasing is part of the mental exercise of talking to yourself and during this process some verbal clue may focus your attention on a possible correct solution.
  4. If you encounter a question that forces you into a guessing situation try to eliminate the most unlikely choices.
  5. The bottom line is that you must remember that the question and its respective choices have been designed to take into account all the possible errors you may make when solving the question.

Matching Questions

  1. Read all the items in both columns before answering any of the questions
  2. Answer the questions that you know first.
  3. Cross out the letter that you have used so that you can easily see what is left.
  4. Leave the most difficult questions to the last and then analyze each item and decide which has the best fit.
  5. Do not leave any question without an answer. If all else fails make a guess.


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