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Nine Tips for Tackling Tough Numeracy Test Questions

Examiners on numeracy tests aren’t going to ask you anything impossible. Use these strategies and tactics and you should find yourself starting to make headway on questions you didn’t think you could do.

Read the question

Here’s a brutal fact: if you don’t understand what the question is asking for or what information you’ve been given, you can think as hard as you like and still not end up with the right answer.

Making sure you read the question carefully is the antidote to this. Rushing through the question and getting cracking on your work as quickly as possible is really tempting, especially when you don’t have much time to play with.

Eliminate wrong answers

One of the most useful phrases in maths is ‘It can’t possibly be that!’ This is a phrase you can use in many multiple-choice exams to reduce the number of possible answers to a question.

Getting rid of wrong answers isn’t necessarily easy – you do need to read the question carefully and understand roughly what’s going on – but it can dramatically improve your chances of getting the right answer.

You can dramatically improve your chances of picking the right answer by just taking a few seconds to think about what the right answer has to look like so you can out any answers that are definitely wrong.

Think of similar problems

One of the beautiful things about maths is that you can often apply the same approach to questions that seem completely unrelated – if you didn’t know better, would you have thought you could use the same sums to convert miles to kilometres that you use to work out percentages?

Knowing that seemingly different kinds of problems often have similar solutions gives you a chance to draw analogies between questions when you feel stuck.

When you’re faced with a question you don’t recognise, think about what it reminds you of. More often than not, you can use the same maths for it – and it’s always better to do something plausible than to guess.

Try the answers

In a multiple-choice exam, working backwards from the answers you’re given is sometimes easier than doing the sum ‘properly’. It’s a slightly sneaky trick, but that’s okay – the important thing in an exam is to get the right answer whatever way you can.

This is particularly effective if you’ve already thrown out some answers that are obviously wrong so, rather than having to check five answers to see if they make sense, you may only have to consider two or three.

If it’s not stated obviously, the question you have to ask is, ‘Does this answer fully satisfy what the question wanted?’ Only one option should answer the question completely.

Explain the question to yourself

You can’t really talk aloud in an exam, even to yourself, but you can talk through the question in your head.

Imagine you’re explaining your problem to a friend who doesn’t know anything about maths. What’s the simplest way you can state the question? What questions would they ask you?

Use a smart estimate

The words ‘estimate’ and ‘guess’ are sometimes used interchangeably, but they’re actually two different things: a guess is an answer you pick out of the air, while an estimate is a very rough answer you work out. You guess which numbers are going to come up in the lottery, but you estimate how big the jackpot might be.

An estimate involves reading the question, and instead of doing all of the calculations exactly, doing them very roughly – perhaps rounding all of the numbers to one significant figure – to get a rough idea of what the answer ought to be.

Come back to it later

Don’t spend too long on a question you find really hard to answer. There’s nothing (much) worse in an exam than finding that the last few questions look fairly easy, but you don’t have time to answer them because you spent five minutes longer than you should have on an earlier question.

Break it down into smaller parts

Rather than trying to tackle a long exam question at once, break it down into smaller, more manageable parts. This kind of thinking can break a big, difficult question into three or four smaller, easier questions that you can sail through.

The trick is to figure out what information you need for the last part of the question. Once you know what you need to find, think about what information you need to work that out. Keep working backwards until you get to information you know or can work out easily, and you’ll end up with a plan for working through the question.

Guess it wildly

If time’s running out and you’ve got a minute to answer the last five multiple-choice questions, you don’t really have time to read the questions, let alone work out the answers. In this situation you have two possible approaches:

  • Miss out on the questions and get a guaranteed zero for those questions.

  • Guess the answers and maybe pick up a few points.

Numeracy tests usually aren’t negatively marked, so you don’t lose points for giving a wrong answer. If you guess when you don’t have time or are genuinely stuck, the worst that can happen is that you score no marks for that question.

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