Maths has a reputation. It’s frequently seen as an incredibly difficult subject which causes tears, stress and trauma; but here’s the trick – it doesn’t have to be this way.
Maths might seem tough but – behind all the fear-mongering – it can be approachable. If you approach the subject methodically and maintain motivation, discipline, and organisation, you can achieve the highest grade in GCSE Mathematics. Here, I’ve gathered some points which helped me to gain a grade 9 in Maths. They aren’t comprehensive – you can’t ignore your teacher, skip your lessons, forget your homework, and expect a 9. However, these ideas might pull you up a grade (which can make all the difference for future opportunities).
- Learn your formulae. Formulae may seem like the least of your worries but it’s so frustrating to lose marks for misremembering them. Formulae can be learned at any time – you don’t need a teacher or any resources except the formula sheet for your exam board (here’s the Edexcel one as an example). I wrote the formulae I needed on a whiteboard, then checked them, then wrote them out again. It wasn’t a fun process, but I certainly knew them! You can learn them over the summer holidays. You can learn them over Christmas. You can learn them on an app like Quizlet on the bus. You can’t learn them five minutes before your exam when you realise you don’t know how to calculate the volume of a sphere. As soon as you learn your formulae, you can access any area of the study material without excuses. You’re also guaranteeing yourself some low-level marks – and every mark counts. If you really can’t remember a formula, find some content. For example, I learned how to prove the quadratic formula by completing the square, which really helped me to understand all the strange letters!
- Do every practice question you can find (and then redo them). Seek out the past and specimen papers for your exam board. Do them. If you get a question wrong, don’t just mark it as such, but write it out with correct and clear working until you understand how to do it. If you make a silly mistake, find more questions like it to prevent one mistake from becoming an ongoing issue. Be proactive with your learning. After you’ve marked the paper, you want to be able to do it again and confidently gain full marks, rather than floundering. When you run out of questions (because – let’s be honest – there aren’t that many official resources from the exam boards), do questions from other boards with similar specifications – particularly if they have a reputation of being more difficult than yours. It’s far better to be surprised by how easy the examination questions are than to be shocked by how tricky they are.
- Research your specification. Not knowing what you’re supposed to be learning is clearly a problem. Fortunately, the exam boards provide you with a comprehensive list of everything which could be featured on the exam – the specification. They’re all freely available on the exam board websites, ready to be sought out by students. Looking through the specification can clarify the work you need to do. Do you want a 9? Then you should be able to do everything on the specification easily – because in the exam it won’t be so clear. The top-tier questions will be misleading and will stretch the specification ridiculously (but that’s why they’re the trickiest questions). Printing out a copy of the specification and highlighting points for improvement can help you to set out a revision plan.
- Challenge yourself. As mentioned previously, the level 9 questions are deliberately tough. By doing the most difficult questions you can find, you can hone your mathematical abilities to make yourself tougher. TES has some great packs of questions for those targeting each grade. If you can’t do them, find a teacher or even another student who can and ask them to explain how. A warning: don’t ask other students for help in the days leading up to the exams. You’ve had enough time. However, building up a support network can really help when tackling tricky questions – especially if you turn it into a competition.
- Head to help sessions. My school had a “maths helpline” once a week. I went to every session from September to mid-May (when exam leave began). Help sessions are not for stupid people. The only stupid people are those who need help but don’t seek it. Even if you don’t need advice on any specific aspect of the syllabus, that lunchtime is great for doing practice questions. You may also get resources that typical students don’t get – my teacher made questions for each chapter of the textbook. If help sessions don’t take place in your school, why not email the teachers and ask? The worst that’ll happen is that they say no.
- Tweet. Twitter has some amazing – and accessible – teachers. HegartyMaths and CorbettMaths are fantastic, uploading video tutorials and sample questions. Follow them, turn on your notifications, and then do every question that you see in the run-up to exams. It doesn’t feel like much, but frequent small amounts of work can stabilise your mathematical skill. You can also use YouTube – I’ve written a post with more detail here.
- Know where your calculator is – and what it does. As one of my maths teachers used to say, “your calculator is your best friend; love it”. Forgetting your calculator is a silly mistake. You should be above that by now. The same goes for all other mathematical resources. If you are forgetful, manage it. Buy a cheap maths set (I managed to find an Oxford maths set for 70p last year) and let it hide among the debris in the bottom of your bag. When you forget your protractor/pair of compasses/sense of self worth, find the spare. You will feel so thankful. However, it’s not enough to just have your equipment. You need to be able to use it. Know what the buttons on your calculator mean – and whether they’re necessary for the exam. Check out the different modes. Most importantly though – make sure your calculator is on “degrees” mode rather than “radians” for the GCSE exam. Otherwise, you’ll be getting some very strange answers.
- Don’t anchor yourself to your calculator. The first paper is non-calculator. I know – it’s sad. When are you going to not have a calculator in real life? But suck it up and play the game. Make sure you can do mental maths – without wasting time or making silly mistakes – with no calculator. This includes practice papers. Don’t assume you will be able to work without a calculator in the real thing. Treat each practice paper like it is the real thing.
- Get creative. Grab some card (or steal some paper from the school printer, depending on your budget) and make a mind map summarising all the formulae you need to learn or everything related to trigonometry or key terms you need to know or…. the only limit is your imagination. Stick flashcards up in your bathroom and look at them while brushing your teeth. Four minutes per day for a year equates to over a day of study overall – time adds up. Set phone notifications with practice questions (and then actually do them). Write notes on your mirror and study while brushing your hair – as long as they can be cleaned off! Whatever activity you’re doing, find a way to fit maths in.