I’m going to make a somewhat counter-intuitive claim about how to go about preparing for exams (or tests) which is – in order to be really well prepared for exams you need to almost completely forget about preparing for exams (or tests).

This sounds ridiculous doesn’t it? But I’ll try to explain why I think this.

Exams and tests are a completely unnatural thing when it comes to learning. The anticipation of an upcoming test or exam can cause unnecessary stress and, in some cases, outright panic neither of which are any good for learning. The anticipation of exams and tests causes people to learn at a rate that is a fraction of the rate at which they are capable of learning because they will only ‘learn’ what they expect to be examined on – repetitively going over the same few, scanty bits of information trying to cram some poorly-understood and seemingly non-sensical facts into their heads – rather than challenging themselves and delving deeper into a subject to get a much greater understanding.

And of course, why bother to learn things if you won’t be examined on them? Who in their right mind would ‘waste time’ learning things that they won’t be examined on? Well that’s exactly the kind of viewpoint you will probably take if you see education and learning as nothing more than a series of exams and tests. And no wonder people with this attitude hate learning! So would I if that’s all learning meant to me.

But isn’t learning about more than just exams? Yes, I know that exams are an important part of your life if you want to go to university or become a chartered accountant etc. so I’m not saying that exams can be completely ignored – what I AM saying is that preparation for exams should not be the main focus of your learning. If you really want to learn more, learn faster and learn better then you need to be learning because you love learning about what you’re learning about and have a genuine desire to want to go further and acquire more knowledge simply because you can.

Does it sound weird to take such an approach to learning? Of course it does because no-one really encourages people to learn in this way in school. There’s constant testing week-in and week-out and so people only learn the bits of information that they need to know for the test, and as long as they can vomit up these bits of information in the test, regardless of whether they understand (which in many cases people know but don’t understand), then they get a good mark; a couple of days later and they’ve forgotten everything that they learned, rinse and repeat! And this approach is considered to be a good learning approach!!!!

If you are genuinely interested in what you’re learning and you’re learning because you love learning, then learning is easy and effortless. A depth of understanding will come to you that will never come if you see your learning as just learning to pass a constant stream of tests and exams. If you learn because you love to learn then you will pass the tests and exams with flying colours because you will be streets ahead of the rest of the crowd – you will learn at a rate that is unimaginable if you’re learning to just pass an exam and, moreover, what you learn will be much more permanent.

When I was learning GCSE maths I was learning to pass an exam – and it was hard, hard, hard! I hated it. When I was learning A-Level maths I was learning because I was excited about what I was learning – I learned way more than I needed to pass the A-Level exams and I didn’t even think about the exams until a couple of weeks before I sat them, at which point I realised, I didn’t need to do any revision specifically for my exams because I’d been doing it all along without even realising it! The outcome was that the exams were a piece of cake!

I’ve always maintained my position that good resources and, especially good textbooks, are a must for anyone learning maths at any level. I still stand by that but unfortunately, A Level Maths students find themselves in something of a difficult situation nowadays. Why? Well to put it bluntly – the textbooks are terrible!

This is a fairly recent development as in the past there have been some very good (and also some very bad) A Level Maths textbooks. But what makes the latest sets of A Level Maths textbooks, for the most part at least, so bad? After all, when you look at the textbooks they look great; lovely colourful pictures, bright, jazzy etc. Well the thing is, it’s all well and good having a lovely glossy, colourful textbook but if the actual content – the stuff that people are actually supposed to learn – is no good then a few pictures isn’t going to make any difference. It reminds me of the well-known saying that ‘you can’t polish a t…’; well, you get the idea.

The latest sets of A Level maths textbooks are, in my very honest opinion, some of the most uninspiring textbooks I have ever seen. I hate to have to be so negative here, as if there isn’t already enough negativity around, but, sadly, it’s true – they stink! They are awful!

A good textbook, which I loosely define to be a textbook with good, solid content, is interesting and can inspire without the need for any jazzy and colourful pictures. It seems that the more colourful the textbook is, the worse the content will be! I’ll use as an example the textbooks that I used for my A-Level maths (2003-2005); they didn’t contain ANY colour pictures and only a few basic graphs and diagrams. However, they were great! Why? Because they went into sufficient depth, the problems were challenging, and you actually learnt things. If, like me, you were interested in mathematics and WANTED to learn about it then the books were interesting by virtue of the fact that they contained great content on something that you were deeply interested in. If you’re interested enough in your subject then what you need to learn could be written on toilet-paper and it wouldn’t matter.

So, what if you’re not particularly interested in maths but you have to do A Level maths for whatever reason, what do you do to get interested? Well this is a different matter and the solution depends on each individual, but what I can say with 100% certainty is that trying to fob people off by putting fantastic looking pictures in a book with weak content won’t make someone interested in the content – it’s just insulting! Poor content is just an all round lose-lose situation and it’s that simple.

I don’t know who thought that the new A Level Maths textbooks were good enough to be published (oh, and a separate issue – they are very often riddled with errors!) but if you ask me, you would be much better off buying some of the older textbooks to work from. Don’t worry if you think that the old textbooks are out of date – what is inside the books is still very relevant and what’s more, you will probably learn a lot more from them. Some of the older style books that I recommend (off the top of my head) are

  • Heinemann A-Level maths books first published up to around 2004
  • OCR A-Level maths textbooks first published up to around 2004
  • MEI A-Level maths textbooks first published up to around 2005

You can go even further back than these and there are some really amazing A-Level textbooks – bright and jazzy? No! Challenging and interesting? 100% Yes. If you really want to learn mathematics and get a good foundation then these are the places to start and sadly, NOT in the latest sets of textbooks.