Are you struggling with how to get better at math?
If you’re like many students, you find math frustrating and overwhelming.
Maybe your palms get sweaty just thinking about solving equations and memorising formulas. Or maybe you feel like you’re not a “math person” — like no matter how hard you try, you’ll never understand the fundamentals of geometry or algebra.
I get it. Math is tough, and it only gets more difficult as you progress in your studies.
But you don’t have to love numbers to learn how to get good grades in math. With the right attitude and strategies, anyone can learn how to become better at math.
Plus, math is one skill you’ll use long after you complete your formal education. From managing money to filing taxes to baking cakes, confidence with numbers will help you every day.
So, how do you get better at math for long-term success?
Let’s explore these 11 tips that will help you exchange anxiety for confidence, regardless of what problem your teacher (or life) throws your way.
1. Relate math problems to real-life situations
Without mathematics, there’s nothing you can do. Everything around you is mathematics. Everything around you is numbers.
– Shakuntala Devi, writer and mental calculator.
What do you see when you look at a complicated math equation? A random jumble of letters and numbers?
No wonder you feel stressed because of math!
One simple tip to get better at math is to make practical connections to real-life scenarios whenever possible.
If your teacher writes a difficult equation on the board, ask yourself how you might use the formula outside the classroom.
It’s always more challenging to memorise something we don’t understand. But getting better at math becomes purposeful and relevant when we make it meaningful.
Here’s an example…
B = 60 + 0.25M, where B = 300
This equation doesn’t mean anything to you. Maybe you can solve it, but you probably don’t care much about it.
Now, what if I told you this math equation represents your phone bill. M = minutes used; B = total amount due.
You suddenly have a real-life connection to the problem. It’s not just an assortment of letters and numbers but a practical scenario involving money.
Remember that a valuable reason to get better at math is to make everyday decisions easier. So start relating your math assignments to real-life situations whenever you can.
If you do this, those tricky formulas might start to make more sense.
2. Master basic math skills
Sometimes, studying math can feel like learning a foreign language. So why not treat it like one?
You wouldn’t attempt an entire conversation in Spanish if you didn’t already know a few essential words. Instead, you’d learn words like hola and gracias.
Then, you’d practise stringing a handful of words into a sentence. Eventually, after some repetition, you’d have a solid foundation to advance your language skills.
Complex math computations build off of foundational skills, too.
Develop and maintain the basics, such as fractions and decimals. Avoid moving on to higher levels of math until you fully understand the underlying principles — even if that means doing a few extra practice problems along the way.
You’ll soon discover that you can learn how to get good at math.
3. Break down intricate problems
There’s no way around it: you’ll face tricky math problems on your academic journey.
It’s easy to get flustered by complex questions, but remember that these questions build off skills you already possess.
Ask yourself this question:
How can I break this math problem into smaller, more manageable parts?
Read and reread the question carefully. Take a deep breath.
Do you recognise any familiar concepts or formulas within the larger problem? By “chunking” a challenging problem down into bite-size sections, you’ll avoid feeling overwhelmed.
If you’re still stuck, consider simplifying the numbers. Does the problem become more manageable if you’re working with 10 instead of 10,000? 2/3 instead of 37/52? (Just don’t forget to revert to the original numbers before writing your final answer!)
When faced with challenging problems in life and in math, ask yourself how you could simplify the situation.
You might be surprised at how obvious the answer becomes!
4. Make the most of practice tests
Education isn’t mainly about getting good grades. That being said, exams are an unavoidable part of your academic career.
Practice tests are a powerful tool to help you prepare well, but there’s a problem.
Many students learn how to tackle a tough question on their practice test weeks or even months before the exam. They then sometimes forget how to solve the same type of question when it shows up later on the actual exam.
Here’s what I recommend that you do:
Place a sticky note on the page whenever you encounter a tricky question. Get the help you need to understand the problem. Regularly review all the practice questions you flagged with a sticky note in the days and weeks leading up to the exam.
If you add this to your list of test preparation and test-taking strategies, you’ll see an improvement in your math grades.
5. Establish a consistent study routine
Studies show that cramming doesn’t work.
If you cram, you might be able to memorise equations or formulas for a while, but you won’t retain the information for long.
What should you do instead?
Establish a consistent study routine to review math problems and formulas.
Try setting up a study group with three to four other motivated students if you need some accountability.
After a lot of research and experimentation, here’s a routine for periodic review that I’ve found works well for most students:
- 1 day after learning the new information
- 3 days after the first review
- 7 days after the second review
- 21 days after the third review
- 30 days after the fourth review
- 45 days after the fifth review
- 60 days after the sixth review
Use this schedule to commit fundamental math concepts and formulas to long-term memory. You should only need about 10 to 15 minutes for each review session for each topic.
(For more tips on how to improve your study habits so that you learn how to be better at math, here are the rules I followed to become a straight-A student.)
6. Write down each step
We’ve all been there before…
You get your math exam back and you review the questions you got wrong. You realise you did everything right for a number of questions — except for one tiny mistake. This means that you still got the final answer wrong.
Rushing through the process of solving math problems doesn’t help your accuracy.
So it’s crucial that you write down each step. This way, you can check your intermediate calculations on the way to your final answer. By doing this, you’ll avoid errors and uncover mistakes you made along the way.
Here’s another tip: It makes a difference if you’re organised and neat. If you can’t read your handwriting, you can’t check your process. Try working vertically, and only use one line on your paper for each step.
7. Practise mental math
Now, some of you might be thinking:
“Isn’t practising mental math the opposite of writing down each step as you work through a problem?”
Well, not exactly.
When I talk about mental math, I’m referring to simple calculations that you can do in your head.
Your brain is like a muscle. To keep it strong, you’ve got to use it and challenge it.
Mental math is an excellent way to do just that. Plus, it will enable you to strengthen your understanding of numerical relationships.
Try using mental math while you’re out shopping or dining at a restaurant. Help your parents calculate a tip without using your smartphone. Estimate what the sales tax will be at the grocery store.
Keep practising, and eventually, complicated mental math will seem simple!
You’ll stop wondering to yourself, “How do I get better at math?” Instead, you’ll start revelling in your newfound confidence with numbers.
8. Improve your number sense
Number sense refers to how comfortable you are with numbers and basic math.
Some people have better number sense than others, and that’s okay! With practice, anyone can improve their number sense.
Here’s a fun trick to cultivate number sense: Make guesses or estimations.
As you go about your day-to-day activities, think about the distances, amounts, and measurements you encounter.
How many miles do you need to travel to get to soccer practice? How many gallons of water does it take to fill a swimming pool? How many tablespoons of sugar could fit in that bowl?
Whenever you can, do the actual calculations to see how accurate you were.
The more you make estimations about the world around you, the better your approximations will get — and the more comfortable you’ll feel about dealing with numbers.
9. Focus on the process of solving problems
I’ve said it before in many articles: Students who succeed in school concentrate on learning the information, not on getting straight A’s.
Sure, it feels nice to get good grades. But what’s far more important are the positive habits that shape who you’re becoming through the process of learning effectively.
The same principle applies to learning how to get better at math.
Getting the correct answer on an exam is great. But what matters is that you understand the process that brought you to that right answer.
These are the same kinds of processes that will help you navigate the world outside of school.
As you tackle increasingly tricky math topics like calculus and complex numbers, remember why you’re learning specific formulas. If you don’t understand the process behind a calculation, approach your teacher for help.
Plus, when you swap memorising facts for understanding processes, you’ll get better grades too.
10. Ask questions
When it comes to getting better at math, there’s never any shame in asking for guidance when you need it.
If you have a question, go to your teachers or parents for support. They want to help you succeed!
Here are some helpful tips for asking better questions so that you can get better at math:
- Be as specific with your questions as possible.
- Listen attentively.
- Take notes so that you have additional information to refer to later on.
- Repeat back to your teacher what you heard to check your understanding.
- Clarify your doubts early on; don’t wait until the day before an exam to seek help.
11. Stay positive
Getting better at math might seem impossible in the beginning. But with the right mindset and tools, you can improve your understanding of numbers — and get better math grades, too.
Your mindset is vital, and the phrases you say to yourself will shape how you feel. In other words, positive self-talk will help you become a more successful and resilient student. Negative self-talk will achieve the opposite.
Here are a few mantras that I’ve found to be especially helpful:
- “The harder it gets, the harder I try.”
- “I don’t stop when I’m tired. I stop when I’m done.”
- “Progress, not perfection.”
If you’re struggling to maintain a positive mindset about math, you can give these phrases a try too.
And if you’d like some help to become a focused, motivated and resilient student, you can learn more about the one-to-one coaching programme I offer. It would be my joy to work with you!