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Colin: How to get a B at GCSE Maths

Colin Beveridge from Flying Colours Maths shares with us his tips on How go get a B at GCSE Maths.  Colin Beveridge is the author of several maths For Dummies books, and a friendly, professional maths tutor based in Poole, Dorset.

Getting a C in maths, for many students, is a great achievement and one I applaud whole-heartedly. It keeps a lot of doors open for you.

But sometimes you need a B or better. Maybe your preferred sixth form requires it, or you can’t get onto a particular university course without it. In which case, here are my ten top tips for getting your grade up.

1. Make sure you can do the basics in your sleep

I had a student who came to me with a GCSE mock paper where she’d got an E. If she’d known her times tables, how to do basic arithmetic (adding, subtracting, long multiplication and a bit of division), and how to round, she’d have got at least a mid-C.

I know you’ve been doing it since primary school. I know you think you’re beyond that baby-stuff. But it’s baby-stuff that’s worth a big chunk of marks in the exam.

2. Always check your answers make sense

In the real-world questions, it’s always a good idea to estimate first: how long would you expect a bit of string to be? How much should a cruise cost? Will this event be more or less likely than the other?

Once you have an idea of what a right answer would look like, write it down — you might even get a mark for it. Then when you work the question through, you can compare it with your estimate and say either ‘that looks plausible’ or ‘that definitely needs checking.’

3. Try making a start on everything

It’s up to you to manage your time. If you habitually run out of time in the exam, ignore this one. But if you find yourself counting ceiling tiles with 20 minutes to go, this one’s for you.

Thing is, most questions aren’t all-or-nothing affairs, where you get five points if you write down the correct answer and nothing if you get it slightly wrong. In fact, a wrong answer with good working will generally get you more marks than a right answer with no working.

The upshot of that is that you don’t need to understand everything to get points for answering a question — making a decent stab at a triangle with SOHCAHTOA or working out something sensible from a horrific comparison question will get you a few points. Remember, you’re scrapping for every point: you just need to be one point over the grade boundary to get your B.

4. Learn the Table of Joy

The Table of Joy is the single, handiest maths technique I know. It’s a simple grid for working out questions in:

  • Percentages
  • Ratios
  • Proportion
  • Probability
  • Histograms
  • Currency conversions
  • Similar triangles
  • Pie charts
  • Recipe scaling
  • Maps
  • Speed/distance/time
  • Mass/volume/density
  • Fuel consumption

… And probably a dozen other topics. It’s a handy little badger, and I’ve seen Higher papers where it’s worth more 20% of the marks, and Foundation papers where it’s more like 50%.

Unfortunately, I’m not at liberty to give away all of my secrets. You can learn about the Table of Joy in any of my Maths For Dummies books.

5. Embrace mistakes

Want to know the biggest difference between a good mathematician and a not-so-good one? It’s they way you handle mistakes.

If you look at your marked homework and think “I got a few wrong, that must mean I’m rubbish at maths”, then you’re dragging yourself into the not-so-good category. Don’t do that.

If, instead, you say “I got a few wrong — I wonder how I can fix that?”, you’re pulling yourself into the good group. (This one isn’t just true for maths, by the way — it’s what sportspeople do after they get beat, and what businesses do after things go wrong.)

In short, successful people focus on improving, rather than beating themselves up. Be successful. It’s nicer.

6. Keep an Idiot List

I’m not calling you an idiot, of course. I don’t even call myself an idiot these days. But when I was writing computer code for my NASA project back in the day, I was forever making the same mistakes and costing myself huge amounts of time.

So I came up with the solution of an Idiot List. It was a bit of paper taped to the wall behind my desk on which I listed any silly mistake I’d made, especially the embarrassing ones. Then, if something wasn’t working, the first thing I’d do would be to check the Idiot List. Nine times out of ten, I’d say “D’oh!” and fix it on the spot. Before long, I wasn’t even checking the Idiot List because I’d stopped making the silly mistakes and moved onto much higher-level mistakes.

7. RTFQ

The place most students throw away most marks isn’t anything to do with hard sums. It’s to do with not reading the, um, full question. I’ve seen people start the question halfway down. I’ve seen people skip lines. I’ve seen people just jump into the sum with whatever numbers they can see (there’s a story about a question that asks “There are 12 goats and 3 elephants on a ship — how old is the captain?” You’d be surprised how many people answer 15 or 36.)

Don’t do that.

Practise reading the whole question and writing down all of the information. Neatly. With labels. When you’re working stuff out, say “This is how many miles you go in 20 minutes” or similar — really think about what you’re doing at each stage.

8. Master one thing at a time

If you’re struggling with a topic in class, the odds are it’s because you didn’t quite get the topic it’s built on — you’re not going to get quadratic graphs if you don’t understand linear graphs, and you’re not going to get algebraic fractions if you don’t know how numerical fractions work.

Set aside some time each week to review topics from old notebooks and earlier in the textbook — it’ll really help you to stay on top of the new stuff.

9. Organise

You want to start planning your revision as early as you can. Figure out which topics you’re strong at (work on those once in a while, to keep your hand in), which ones need some work (really focus on those to build them into strong topics), and which ones are a mystery (look at those once in a while to see if you can get some insight. Quite often, when you look back at something that used to be hard, you think ‘…oh! Is that it?’)

10. Be consistent

It’s much better to do 20 minutes (or more) every day than it is to try to do everything the night before your class. If you leave your work to the last minute, the chances are you’ll have forgotten it by the time it comes up.

Maths rewards consistency. Get a little calendar and put a red cross over every day you do some maths. Try not to break the chain. You’ll thank me when you get your results.

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