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

girl at laptop at kitchen table

Studying for a math test should be something that helps student confidence—not an activity that makes things worse. 

This week I chatted with Margo, our resident mathematics expert (here is her latest practice problem on converting decimals into fractions), about the best ways to make studying for a math exam manageable, and to help confidence soar. 

Really, studying is a skill in and of itself. There is a lot that goes into it 

With that in mind, it’s no wonder that studying seems like a blocker 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. We’ll tackle both in this post, including some “do’s and don’ts” backed by the latest research. 

Let’s begin with what’s too often overlooked—the keys to a successful studying set up.

Tips when studying for a math test

These five easy steps will help students start studying down the path to success toward their next math exam or quiz!

1. Practice problem-solving and timing

Take a practice test, and use the results for smarter studying. Research shows this ensures students spend their time wisely; more does not necessarily mean better for exam prep. A pre-test, like those found here, will target the concepts that require the most attention and help identify the kinds of problems students might encounter during the "real thing."

Embrace “interleaving practice,” aka the life-changing art of mixing things up. Textbooks and lessons are typically organized in blocked arrangement, which is an educator’s way of saying they’re grouped by concept. This method can help, and is effective for teaching, but studies show the opposite in terms of studying. For the best results, students should mix things up 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 through study groups, etc. So, kids shouldn’t shy away from this practice during study time. 

Set a time limit, seriously! While the exact amount of time 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 cramming the night before the exam might not work. So, be smart in planning a study schedule, and set a time limit to help keep things moving. 

2. Write down formulas, then read directions carefully

Test anxiety is a real thing, and it can kick in pretty quickly when kids read the first question and panic. A potential remedy? Students should immediately write formulas down in the margins. 

Next, focus on the directions. 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 following directions.

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

Most, if not all, math teachers will expect to see this, and assign points or partial credit 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 assignments and problems, and replicating that process while doing some of the interleaving practice mentioned above. 

During the exam, 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 and deduce

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:

What is 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 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 checking work by plugging number values back into an equation or solving the problem using a different method. 

You might be asking, shouldn’t kids focus on finishing the test first? Why waste time on one perfect answer when kids need potentially ten of them? We hear you, and different kids will have different needs. 

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.  

Studying 101: Creating a Solid Mindset and Foundation

Sorry, but rereading and underlining isn’t studying. And, there is an actual art to effective note-taking.

While this news might be devastating, it also makes a lot of sense. Research shows that rereading your class notes is the least effective way to study for a test

It’s great to review notes and have all relevant 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, kids should mentally prepare to go a step further.

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 exam day). 

Then, the real work begins.

Happy Math Testing!

And 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.