The Definitive Guide to Maths Revision at GCSE and A Level
Revising for maths exams can be very different to revising for other subjects, where there are more facts, dates, case studies, reactions, definitions etc. to learn. Instead, at both A Level and GCSE, maths is focused on applying methods to solve problems.
At its heart, this requires two things: you have to know those methods, and you have to be able to apply them appropriately. Answering maths questions and thinking about maths problems (i.e. actually doing the maths) is absolutely vital.
How to revise for maths at GCSE and A Level
1. Be Structured
Whether you are studying for maths GCSE, iGCSE, A-level or the IB, it is vital that you structure your revision well, so that time doesn’t slip away and no topics are missed. You can structure your revision by making a timetable.
2. Do past papers – loads of them!
Past paper practice and trying exam-style questions are absolutely vital when studying for maths. There are plenty of resources out there, with tons of past papers to attempt and exam-style resources such as the Churchill Papers or Solomon papers, which can give you additional practice. If you are sitting GCSE this year, the Churchill papers will be particularly helpful, since there aren’t many past papers to go by.
Revision power hours are the best way to go about doing past papers – they make sure you learn as much from the experience as possible.
So now that you’ve gathered together all the papers you want to do before your exam, you should put these into a timetable. Which papers will you do each week? Will you do them with notes or without? Will you do them in timed conditions or not? As you approach the exams, it’s always better to try papers in real exam conditions, so that you can track and measure your progress.
3. Concentrate on your Weaknesses
It can be easy to end up only revising your strongest areas or the parts of maths that you enjoy more! Unfortunately, this is a trap, because it means that the areas you should be focusing on don’t get any attention.
Well, “how do I know what my weak areas are?” I hear you ask? Doing one paper in exam conditions will allow you to assess which topics need the most work. Or perhaps, which topics you need to memorise the formulae for.
(Top tip: learn and understand as many formulae and special facts such as trig ratios off by heart – they will save you time and effort in the exam, and will make patterns easier to spot. Relying on a formula sheet or calculator for everything will reduce your efficiency and fluency).
You can then include the revision of these topics in your timetable, amongst the past paper practice you will be doing.
You can download a free chapter of Lucy's book, The Ten Step Guide to Acing Every Exam You Ever Take that will also help you to identify your weaknesses and plan your revision. Click here to download.
Use a Variety of Resources
How will I revise the topics I find hard? Luckily, there are plenty of resources available nowadays for GCSE and A-level maths. Youtube is a goldmine for tutorial videos that you can use to re-learn topics that you just didn’t understand the first time round. You should then attempt textbook questions on this topic and make yourself flash cards for key facts or formulae you need to remember. Now that you have a grounding of these topics, attempt a few more past papers and use mark schemes and solution videos online to help you get into the groove of exam style questions.
Remember, nothing (no amount of video-watching or reading) will replace actually doing questions on your own, so make this a priority.
A surprising number of marks can be gained just by improving your exam technique. This covers a lot of areas, but at heart it's about how to best get your knowledge and skills from your brain to the exam paper.
Marking Past Papers
It should be clear by now that the best way to improve at something is to practise it directly. I’ve already mentioned that doing past papers that you’ve scheduled into a revision timetable is a good idea.
Ok. So you do a paper. But that’s just the beginning. The biggest learnings will come from actually marking your own paper, figuring out where you lost marks (e.g. for not understanding the wording of the question, not rounding correctly or just simply not knowing what to do) and making a list of these common mistakes somewhere so that you can avoid them in the future.
You should take a note of where marks are awarded and how you need to present your answer to get the most marks. This is especially true in “explanation” questions, where you have to justify your answer to a question using mathematics.
Timing is one thing which is especially important. There is nothing more disappointing than having unattempted questions as the end, some of which you could have answered correctly. You have to learn at what point you should give up on a question you can’t do, and come back to it if you have time at the end.
Once again, doing timed past papers will be very useful for getting a sense of how long different questions take you and how much time you usually have.
Presenting your answers well has many benefits. Firstly, it gives examiners more opportunities to give method marks if they can follow your working. It also makes it easy for you to check for mistakes later on. Thinking about presentation and the exact steps you are using also makes you consider everything you do, making it less likely you will make simple mistakes.
Good presentation is much more than just writing more neatly, it is about having a logical ‘flow’ to your answer and describing what you are doing rather than just writing a series of disconnected calculations.
Don’t be afraid to write words in your working! Simple marker words such as “when x=0,…” give structure to your work and allows you to communicate your solution much better.
If you have time left at the end of an exam, checking your answers can be an easy way to gain extra marks. This doesn’t mean just looking through your answers. I found it helpful to actually work them out again, using alternative methods if possible. This way, you are much more likely to find any mistakes.
If you do two different methods that lead to different answers, should you cross one out or leave both there? Will both be marked or will neither be marked? This is something that you should ask your teacher as it varies by exam board.
Know your calculator
For a calculator paper, having a good knowledge of your calculator can be very helpful. There are some quite handy functions on many modern calculators, including quadratic solvers! You most certainly shouldn’t use these calculator functions without showing your working out. However, it can be a godsend for checking your working, and ensuring that you get those extra few marks.
There are clearly many ways you can improve your revision for maths exams. My main summary would be, find what works best for you, structure your revision carefully, and do past papers.
BUT is also very important to consider that preparing for exams starts from the beginning. Concentrating in lessons, taking time on your homework, and looking over things as you learn them all make your revision significantly easier when it comes closer to the exams.
Over to you
How do you revise for maths exams? What works for you? What doesn't work for you? Let us know in the comments below and we'll be glad to help.
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This blog post was put together by the STEP Maths Team, overseen by a qualified Maths teacher with 7 years' teaching experience in a leading grammar school and two top independent girls day schools in London, and who has a first class degree in Mathematics from Oxford University.