Math Test-Taking Strategies to Boost Confidence

Mar 8, 2014
Math anxiety can easily undermine the hard work students have invested throughout the year, lowering their scores on standardized tests and jeopardizing their chances to take advanced classes or enroll in the schools of their choice.

But reducing math anxiety, a well-documented phenomenon, can prevent this. Students can reduce anxiety by reviewing the mistakes they make on homework assignments and practice exams. After grouping these errors into three categories, they can easily be remembered as the "three C's:"
  • Concept, understanding the methods needed to resolve specific problem types
  • Comprehension, determining exactly what individual problems are asking students to do
  • Calculation, solving the problem correctly without making errors or overlooking any critical details
When faced with challenging test questions, students can become gripped with math anxiety.  However, they can address the root cause by reviewing past assignments and practice tests.  Often, the cause lies in difficulties with one or more of the three C's.  After identifying where exactly a student's weaknesses lie, adults can help address them.  This allows students to move on from anxiety and perform at the level of their true potential.

As a first step, parents, teachers or private instructors can sit down with students and look at the types of errors made in homework assignments, regular tests and practice exams.  It's a process that can be helpful anytime during the academic year, especially when students become anxious about math, and is particularly important when it's time to start preparing for standardized tests.

To address concept challenges, students can be asked to break questions down into a series of meaningful parts, resolve these parts individually, and then put them back together. Children struggling with both Concept and Comprehension can be asked to read troublesome questions aloud.  This helps to strengthen the mechanics of understanding by invoking different parts of the brain. Another helpful approach is to ask students to reframe questions in their own words.

To help students overcome Calculation difficulties beyond rote practice, which is more appropriate in this situation than the others, it's crucial to make sure a child's written work is neat and clear.  Neat penmanship makes a huge difference in kids' ability to think clearly and follow their own good reasoning.

As the day of the test approaches, children should also take some common-sense steps that can be applied to all types of tests, Larry Martinek, chief instructional officer at Mathnasium notes.  First, avoid last-minute cramming by learning to pace yourself and structuring a daily study plan.  Make sure to eat a healthy, high-protein breakfast the morning of the exam.  Then, in the testing room, STOP and close your eyes.  Take a moment to inhale deeply.  When you exhale, open your eyes and envision the test with an "I can do" mindset.


Studies have shown math anxiety to impact up to half of all students in various ways.  However, with the proper approach, it can be effectively addressed and need not be a permanent hindrance to performance. 



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