Maths exams: prepare to succeed

Posted in: exams, maths and statistics, resilience

Maths exams are hard. Ruth Hand from the Mathematics Resources Centre (MASH) talks about how to revise and how to tackle the exam.

Some people hate exams. Some people love them (yes, seriously). So how to you turn yourself from a hater to a lover?

Prepare for the exam

The increase in open book exams has created confusion about how to prepare.

It's true that you don’t have to rely on your memory to such an extent, but if you have facts and formula at your fingertips you will be quicker and more confident. Use post-its or bookmarks to help so you can locate the facts you need instantly.

Open book exams also mean that you will need to be able to apply facts rather than just remember them. Rehearse these skills by working through problem sheets and past papers (if your department makes these available).

Manage your time within the exam

Start at the beginning, answer everything and get everything right. Right?

Probably not. The University of Bath has high entry requirements, so if you're here you were probably used to getting most things right at school.

Things are set up differently at university; about a third of the questions are very hard ‘first class level’ and less than a third of students will get a first class degree, so that means most students can’t answer everything.

Practically speaking, what does this mean? Spend some time looking at the exam and formulating a plan before you start answering questions.

  • Find the easy marks – look through the paper and highlight the ‘easy marks’; about a third of the marks should be accessible things like ‘write down’ or ‘give an example of’.
  • Spot the topics – categorise each question by topic. For open book exams this will help you locate the right section of your notes. If this is a more traditional exam, it's then worth noting down the topic’s key facts and formula in the margin or on rough paper, to act as a reference and free up your working memory.
  • Formulate a plan – either answer all the ‘easy marks’ first, or start with your favourite topic.
  • Find a similar example – it's highly unlikely you'll be asked a complete question that you've seen before, but very likely you'll have seen something similar. Locate the most similar example you can in your brain or book and use the structure to help you.

How to check your answers

You know you should check your answers, but when you're under time pressure it's something that often gets left out or rushed at the end when tired.

Rather than checking through at the end, it's better to 'sense check' as you go:

  • If you are calculating - check the order of magnitude (is it 123 or 1.23?)
  • When working with probabilities – do they (should they?) sum to 1?
  • If it's a graph or a function - use desmos to check it looks as expected
  • Algebraic working is particularly hard to check for errors. A checking technique is outlined below.

You can do some numeric substitution to check your statement still holds, e.g.

“3(2x+4) = 24 when x=1 and
6x+12 = 24 when x = 1,
so I probably expanded the brackets correctly - phew!”

But be careful, because of course some values can trick you, e.g.

“2+y = 2y when y=2, so it must be a equality”

What is the examiner looking for?

Examiners are busy, so providing them with exactly what they ask for (and no more) ensures you get all the marks you deserve.

  • Check the key word - is this a 'write down an example' question or a 'prove it' question?
  • Question value – don’t overcomplicate 1 mark questions.
  • Method marks – this might be stated in the question, or you might want to check with your lecturer before the exam. If there are method marks available then you'll want to carefully show each step.
  • Keep it neat – drafting a rough plan first is a good way to make sure your work is coherent; the examiner shouldn’t need to sift through lots of scribbles. If you suddenly realise at the last minute that you have bits out of order or need to squeeze in an extra line then use clear boxes and arrows to indicate the correct order. Practise writing out the Greek letters so they're legible and you don’t mix them up.

Get more tips

There are lots of resources out on the web. Here are a selection:


Got a question about this blog? Please comment below.

Posted in: exams, maths and statistics, resilience

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