How to succeed in Math

January 23, 2017

Post secondary math courses generally go at about twice the pace of high school courses so you are expected to absorb new material much more quickly.

Math is learned mostly by doing problems, not by memorizing. Therefore, most of your math study time should be spent on working through problems. Many students need to spend more than an hour of study time for every hour of math class. The good news is that, by regularly doing problems, you won’t have to study extensively for math exams. To be most effective, try following these tips:

Attend class every day and take complete step-by-step notes.

New material builds on what you have already learned. Take responsibility for studying and recognizing what you do and don’t know. Get help with concepts you don’t fully understand.

Study math before your other subjects, especially if it is a weakness – you are most alert when you first start to study.

Understand, don’t just memorize, formulas. Be clear about when and how to use each formula you learn (i.e. What type of problem is it used for? What type of wording should you watch for? What are the steps to solve the formula?).

If you have a lot of formulas to memorize, use flashcards with the formula on one side and when to use it, how to use it and a step-bystep example on the other side. Review these through the semester.

Use your homework assignments as practice tests. Go through your notes and then set the timer and work through your homework without referring back to your notes. When you are finished, go back and use your notes to complete the questions you didn’t get. Mark questions that you didn’t answer correctly and redo them later. You do not know the material well enough to succeed on an exam if you have to constantly refer to your notes while doing your homework.

The best way to learn a topic is to teach someone else. If you can explain a concept to a classmate, you know you really understand it.

Apply Pólya’s four-step process to problem solving:

1. Understand the problem. Read through the problem to get an overview. Reread it to identify exactly which quantity the problem is asking you to find a solution for. It sometimes helps to underline key parts. It is always a good idea to guesstimate an answer.

2. Devise a plan – Convert word problems into mathematics (i.e., find equations which describe relationships among the variables and describe the goal of the problem). Use one or more of the following:

Think of every formula or definition that might be relevant to the problem

Work backwards; ask “What do I need to know in order to get the answer?”

Look for a pattern

Draw and label a picture, diagram, or table

Solve a simpler related problem

Guess and test

Relate the problem to similar examples in your notes or text

As you progress in your course, many problems will require several steps. Break these problems down into smaller pieces and solve each piece

3. Carry out the plan

When you work on homework problems write out complete solutions as if you were writing a test answer

Try to do your homework without looking at your notes. Referring to your notes only if you get stuck will make test taking easier.

If your answer is wrong, rework the complete problem. Don’t just convince yourself that you know where you went wrong.

 4. Look back. Always check that your solution:

looks “reasonable,” according to your guesstimate

is in the proper form

is answering the question you were asked to answer

If you’re having trouble, get help asap:

Set up an appointment with your instructor.

Form a study group – brainstorm solutions to difficult questions together.

Use the free professional tutor services (U-210A), drop-in learning strategy sessions (V-228), get help you’re your instructor or a competent classmate, or hire a tutor (

Counsellors at Student Counselling are available to help you with any personal or academic concerns that may be interfering with your success at NAIT. All counselling is free and confidential.

Main Campus: Counsellors are available from 8-4:30 Monday to Friday, with extended hours, 7:15-5:15, on Thursdays. Call 780.378.6133 or come in person to Room W-111PB, HP Centre

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Patricia Campus: A counsellor is available Tuesdays. Book by calling 780.378.6133

– Margaret Marean, NAIT Student Counselling