How to study for a math test—5 easy steps for success

girl at laptop at kitchen table

Nothing creates dread for students quite like a looming test or quiz. On top of that, this dread makes the process of studying at all much less appealing. 

Thankfully, studying for a math test doesn’t have to be an academic nightmare, not on Margo’s watch! 

This week I chatted with Margo, our resident mathematics magician (here is her latest practice problem on converting decimals into fractions), about the best ways to demystify the process, make studying for a math test manageable, and actually get results. 

Needless to say, she had a few ideas. 

First things first, we need to let you in on a little secret: studying is a skill in and of itself. 

Think about the amount of organization and planning that goes into it: where to start? Which practice problems should be done, and how many times? Where’s that one worksheet with that thing I forgot? It’s a lot, and the math part hasn’t even kicked in yet. 

With that in mind, it’s no wonder that studying seems like a nonstarter for so many students. But it doesn’t have to be. 

It’s important to recognize that knowing how to study is just as essential as knowing what to study, and we’ll tackle both in this post, including some “do’s and don’ts” backed by the latest educational research. 

So, if you’re looking for the best ways to help your child get ready for a math test and be happy with their results, these expert tips and tricks are the perfect place to start. Let’s begin with what’s too often overlooked: the keys to a successful studying set up.

Studying 101: Creating a Solid Mindset and Foundation

Margo and I hate to break it to you, but rereading and underlining isn’t studying. 

While this news would devastate my student self (and my elaborate color-coding system that sparked joy, if not knowledge) it also makes a lot of sense. Research shows that rereading your notes is the least effective way to study for a test

It’s great to have all relevant notes and worksheets ready to go for reference, but re-familiarizing should be step one for students. There’s a reason it’s easier to reread an example problem than do a practice question; it takes a lot less work! When studying for a math test, or really anything, kids should mentally prepare to kick it up a notch.

Think of rereading and material-gathering as laying a foundation, and it’s not a step to skip or rush. If students can’t find something, they’ll need plenty of time to get it from a peer or their teacher, so make sure to do this well in advance (at least a week or two before test day). 

Then, the real work begins. Let’s dive in.

The Best Ways to Study for a Math Test

These five easy steps will get students on the path to success on their next test or quiz!

1. Practice, practice, practice

Now we’ve got the myth of passive studying out of the way, we can move on to strategies that actually work. 

Take a pre-test, and use the results for smarter studying. Research shows this ensures students spend their time wisely; more does not necessarily mean better for test prep. A pre-test, like ones found here, will automatically target the concepts that require the most attention and identify the practice that’s most likely to boost kids’ final score. 

Embrace “interleaving practice,” aka the life-changing art of mixing things up. Textbooks and lessons are typically organized in blocked arrangement, an educator’s way of saying they’re grouped by concept. This method is effective for teaching, but studies show the opposite in terms of studying. For the best results, students should mix things up concept-wise while studying; they’ll build stronger independent skills.

Think aloud, peer-practice, teach, and get talking. Time and time again, studies have illustrated the cognitive benefits of thinking aloud and teaching someone else what you know. So, kids shouldn’t shy away from getting a little social - productively so, of course - during study time. 

Set a time limit, seriously! While the exact amount varies by age, kids’ brains will max out their information intake capabilities after a certain number of minutes. This is just one of many reasons last-minute cramming doesn’t work. So, be smart in planning a study schedule. 

2. Remove the formula barrier, then read directions carefully

Margo recommends this because test anxiety is a real thing, and it can kick in pretty quickly when kids read the first question and panic. Her remedy? Students should immediately write down the formulas down in the margins. 

First obstacle to remembering them when it matters: cleared.

Then, it’s directions time. Kids should read every question carefully, perhaps more than once, to avoid making rushed mistakes and throwing all that studying down the drain. Word problems (and converting word problems into equations) and/or multi-step questions are a great study tool to practice attentively following directions so it’s a breeze when it really counts. 

3. Show all your work, before and during the test 

Most, if not all, math teachers will expect to see this and assign points for showing work, so it behooves kids to get used to doing it. 

While studying, kids should practice showing their work in the method their teacher expects on the test. Some teachers will even go so far as to say that the work matters more than the correct answer

The math teacher’s expectations for showing work shouldn’t be a surprise to your student. Thus, it’s worth reviewing homework problems and replicating that process while doing some of that interleaving practice we mentioned earlier. 

During the test, kids should not erase their work; it’s time-consuming, plus they might get credit for it. Margo recommends simply crossing out what kids know is incorrect; that initial work is part of the process.

4. Estimate, it’s the built-in answer key

Margo encourages kids to ask themselves, “What would a reasonable answer be?” as part of the problem-solving process. By estimating during studying and testing, students will be able to make a good guess about whether they’re on track; plus, they’ll be able to catch early mistakes.

Here’s an example: 23x8. If you round 8 up to 10, you have 23x10, which is 230. Since you rounded up, you know that this is higher than what the final number should be, so the answer should be less than 230.

5. Check your work (and practice doing it) 

Spoiler alert: this piece of advice is motivated by the heart-sinking realization that if a student had simply checked their work, they would have answered correctly. But much to both teachers’ and students’ chagrin, this doesn’t always happen!

Margo recommends doing this by plugging number values back into an equation or solving the problem using a different method. 

We know what you’re thinking. Shouldn’t kids focus on finishing the test first? Why waste time on one perfect answer when kids need, well, 10? We hear you, and different kids will have different needs here. 

However, it’s worth noting that practice checking work, by the most efficient method for your student, does make (close to) perfect. Here are some tips and tricks to help them find a strategy that works.  

Happy Math Testing!

No, that’s not an oxymoron. We genuinely believe that, by following this advice, taking a math test will be a lot less stressful, and studying will be a fruitful exercise for kids. 

For further math help, check out our other Math with Margo content in these algebra tutorials, like how to solve for x, and converting fractions into decimals. If your child could use help from an expert, iD Tech offers Online Private Math Tutoring to help kids hone their skills, build confidence, and rock that next math test. 

Options include:

A photo of Virginia

Virginia started with iD Tech at the University of Denver in 2015 and has loved every minute since then! A former teacher by trade, she has a master's in education and loves working to embolden the next generation through STEM. Outside the office, you can usually find her reading a good book, struggling on a yoga mat, or exploring the Rocky Mountains.