How to read a maths question (I bet you’ve been doing it all wrong!)

3 min read

31 March 2023

This can be answered in one word. Slowly.

Before I explain in detail, if you find yourself having to read a question more than once, sometimes 4 or 5 times that is such a massive waste of time. The question WILL NOT answer itself on the 4th or 5th read. You have to slow down. Massively. This will actually lead you to finish the question much faster. I know it sounds stupid but it works. Please trust me. I’m not a teacher burdened with marking and report filling. I have spent most of every day for over a decade answering questions from people and from exam papers.

To expand on this, appalling pun intended, I mean do all the following:

  • Read every sentence one a time like you are reading a recipe, not a novel. That means slowing down and paying attention to every word.
  • For every sentence think “Can I draw a diagram with this information in it?” not “Do I have to draw a diagram”. Drawing a diagram makes you think about every piece of information in a question. It also makes you organise it in one space. So when you are doing the question, and want to know what the radius of the wheel was, or the mass of the rope – it’s SO much easier to find. You can also see what you can work, such as the length BC if you were given AC and AB. It’s much easier on a diagram. Like reading, you will be awful at diagrams at first. Unlike reading there isn’t anyone (but me!) pressing you into sticking with them. You will get better. They will be useful.
  • “Slow down to speed up.” Slow down when reading each sentence so you have time to think as you read. Don’t read anywhere near normal speed. You will find you don’t spend 5 minutes reading the question 7 times, hoping the 7th time you will understand it. If you read it slowly once, you will understand it first time. 3 minutes to read it once and really get it, or 5 minutes reading it 7 times and understanding nothing and getting all stressed out? Easy choice. Remember – read it like a recipe or a set of instructions on how to build flat pack furniture. Slowly – one bit at a time.
  • READ. EVERY. WORD. You may be able to ignore things, like “Sir Waggles the dog is 5kg, Tibs the cat is 2kg.” What words to ignore? You don’t know yet. “The dog walks 5km North, the cat 3km East. What is their distance from each other?” Now you can ignore their names. Compare this to “Sir Waggles walks 5km North, Tibs 3km East. What is their distance from each other?” Now you can ignore the animal type. Stupid example but you get the point. READ. EVERY. WORD.
  • ATEQ. Answer The Exact Question. If it asks for the total height to the top of the flag, and you spend 9 minutes working out the height of the building without the flag, and the flag at the top is 1m, you lose 2 marks for not adding 1m to the height. Sucks but that is what the question asked. Literally EVERY student I have ever taught has made this mistake. Another one – radius is half the diameter, it gives the diameter and you forget to divide by 2. If x was the total number of students, and it asks for the mean class size, divide x by the number of classes. Answer The Exact Question! So many times you will answer your own made up version of the question by not reading it properly. Get a method sorted out – now – for reading it properly. And for the love of god throw away the highlighter. It literally de-emphasises words that could be vital. or
  • Those two links mention flash cards and I’ll be doing a blog on them soon. They are more useful for fact heavy subjects. Maths isn’t one of them but the odd one, well written is OK. Like “list every volume formula you are meant to know” is good, “what is the volume of a cone” is terrible.

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