Thursday, November 15, 2012

Studying for Algebra Tests

I often hear students and/or parents who want to know the best way to study for an Algebra test.

Unlike tests in other subjects, success on Algebra tests generally doesn't hinge solely on one's ability to memorize facts.  This explains why some students can experience success in other subject areas by cramming at the last minute, but fail miserably in Algebra.

The fact is, Algebra tests require students to develop problem-solving skills and then use those skills to solve a variety of problems.  On Algebra tests, students are given problems that are similar to problems done in class or assigned as homework, but that have been modified slightly.

This doesn't happen as much in other subject areas.  (In a U.S. History unit, for example, students may learn that the Declaration of Independence was adopted on July 4, 1776.  When it comes time for the test, this date hasn't been modified... It's still July 4, 1776.)

In preparing for Algebra tests, students need to work to ensure that their problem-solving skills are strong.  They should feel confident that they can solve problems without assistance from a parent, teacher, or another student.

For most students, this means... practice.  I think it's great when students help each other work through homework problems.  I also encourage students to seek help from teachers and/or parents.  However, students who do not practice doing problems on their own often end up struggling on tests.

(This explains why many students get good homework scores, but poor test scores.)

When students ask me how to prepare for an Algebra test, I tell them to do these three things:

1) Memorize vocabulary/math facts emphasized in the chapter.

2) Work through a review assignment.  Get help from the teacher, a parent, or other students if you need to - but make sure your work and answers are correct.

3) Choose problems from the review assignment that you completed with assistance.  Re-work these problems on your own, using the completed assignment as an answer key.  You may need to do this multiple times for a problem, but eventually you will strengthen the skills (and confidence) that you will need to succeed on the test.

I realize that some students have legitimate issues with test anxiety.  (By the way - text anxiety due to the fact that you failed to study/prepare is not a legitimate issue.)  These students need to take additional non-mathematical measures to try to minimize their anxiety.

However, for most students, I find that following the above steps generally leads to success on tests.

One last note:  "Success" is a relative term.  Mathematics is one of the most unfair subjects I know of.  Some students can ace tests with minimal preparation time, while other students put in hours of prep work and struggle to get a B or a C.  I can't guarantee that my study tips will help you ace your Algebra tests, but they should help you increase your scores.

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