I have noticed that though I understand the mathematical material in my classes nigh perfectly, I still make frequent careless mistakes. Roughly 55% (95% CI: (37, 72) of these errors are due to me misapplying mathematical rules. For example, I may in a derivation go from $a = 4(c + b)$ to $a = 4c + b$, even though I am aware that $q(r + v) \neq qr + v$ in general.

How can I make this misapplication of rules less devastating on tests?

I am slow at math, and my tests are fast-paced, so I usually barely have enough time to finish tests when dong several steps at once and not checking my work. This prevents me from using many techniques. It has been suggested to solve problems multiple times in the same way, which I rarely have time to do. It has also been suggested to not do multiple steps in a single line, but again, I seldom have time to do this, and even when I do do it, it only slightly decreases the number of errors I make.

The scientific papers I've seen don't help much.

I currently keep a journal of errors, but I have found few patterns in them, so I have a hard time determining what errors to check for.

It has been suggested to continue practicing, as this will make me eventually improve. However, despite practicing roughly forty hours per week, I have not noticed an improvement other than ones that resulting from me improving my techniques.

One way I have succeeded in improving my techniques is by first checking to see if the solution seems correct, for example by seeing if it seems reasonable or plugging the answer to an algebra problem into the original equation. Then, if the answer is incorrect, I go back to the first line in the derivation, cover up the next, determine what the next line should be, look to see if that is what was written, and then repeat this for all lines. The problem with this is that it if time-consuming, which prevents me from finishing the test, and it only prevents roughly half of errors.

So, how can I deal with misapplying mathematical rules?

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    $\begingroup$ en.wiktionary.org/wiki/practice_makes_perfect $\endgroup$ Oct 27, 2015 at 0:39
  • $\begingroup$ @JackD'Aurizio I've been practicing for ages and save my slightly improved knowledge of how to prevent mistakes, have seen no progress. $\endgroup$
    – Kelmikra
    Oct 27, 2015 at 4:19
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    $\begingroup$ There are different ways to practice. How do you practice? For example, one of my student claimed she did all problems from the textbook to practice, but her results were very poor. During a self-study period, I saw that her way to practice was to take the solution book and copy verbatim all solutions, hoping to memorize them. $\endgroup$
    – Taladris
    Oct 27, 2015 at 4:34
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    $\begingroup$ @Taladris I do my homework without an answer book, note what errors I make and group them into categories, experiment with different techniques for decreasing errors, google or ask how to solve problems when I have tried thoroughly to solve them on my own but failed, and I spend sizable efforts determining how to generalize the solutions to problems. What else should I do? $\endgroup$
    – Kelmikra
    Oct 27, 2015 at 8:23
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    $\begingroup$ Reading through the details of what you've already done to try to address this problem, the methods you have used are impressive. The idea that someone with this level of sophistication of analytical thought is losing so many points on tests to such simple errors is incongruous, which suggests that there may be something going on that few of us here have had to deal with in our own studies. I sincerely hope you find someone who can figure it out. It may also be possible that you could get extra time on tests so that at least you have a chance to find some of your own errors. $\endgroup$
    – David K
    Nov 25, 2015 at 2:03

8 Answers 8


I taught gifted students at the elementary level and have had success helping students become less careless. I suspect some of my strategies might help you.

If you make mistakes, you are practicing making that mistake, so now you have to undo practicing getting them correct. I would suggest you isolate the kinds of mistakes you make (eg distributing incorrectly - a=4(c+b) becomes a=4c+b)

Once you have a list of such mistakes, go to Khan Academy and practice the specific skill that you are making careless mistake with. On Khan Academy you can isolate a skill and practice it. You will have to get 5 right in a row, before they consider that you have practiced it. After you have practiced whatever skills you have isolated, you can then take Khan Academy's mastery challenges which you do over several days. They will give you different skills that you have practiced and give you a chance to move up levels until you have mastered the skill. This will ensure that you have really made these "math rules" second nature and will also help you speed up.

I have found in general that students who take tests slowly need more practice. With enough practice they will go faster.

I hope this strategy helps.

  • $\begingroup$ I make mistakes on every type of problem, as far as I can tell. So, to do your advice, I would practice all skills. This is exactly what I'm doing (though with my math homework and practice tests, not Khan Academy), and it hasn't been working out. $\endgroup$
    – Kelmikra
    Nov 20, 2015 at 10:05
  • $\begingroup$ The reason I suggest Khan Academy is twofold. They wll a) isolate the skill so that you will be forced to get that skill right b) monitor you by computer and notice mistakes that you will not notice. It is no good to just practice and rely on yourself to pick up your mistakes - the computer is better. It is not enough to do your homework because the mistake you make isn't isolated. If you have many different mistakes - pick 10 of them and work on them and see if this helps. I think having the computer keep you honest about your accuracy will make the difference. $\endgroup$
    – Amy B
    Nov 20, 2015 at 13:07
  • $\begingroup$ My homework is automatically graded online, so I still notice mistakes. I also don't know how to only work on certain mistakes. I can make any number types of mistakes on any problem. For example, when solving a simple linear equation, I might misread the directions and do something else, make sign errors, solve for the wrong variable, copy values wrong, factor incorrectly, multiply instead of divide or vise versa, etc. $\endgroup$
    – Kelmikra
    Nov 20, 2015 at 17:28
  • $\begingroup$ Three questions. So even when you don't have time pressure in a testing situation and you have all the time you need, you still make mistakes? When your homework is graded online and you make a mistake, do you correct it yourself without additional feedback or does it tell you what you got wrong? Does your homework online give you five additional problems to do when you make a mistake? $\endgroup$
    – Amy B
    Nov 20, 2015 at 18:01
  • $\begingroup$ I usually need to find the errors myself without additional feedback, though for some questions the answer is revealed if you make five errors in a row, which rarely happens. It does not give five extra questions to do when you make a mistakes, though I get enough homework that I practice each type of problem more than five times anyways. $\endgroup$
    – Kelmikra
    Nov 20, 2015 at 20:33

Here are some more aspects, which could be helpful:

  • Distinguish between understanding and realisation

It's good and necessary to gain a proper understanding for mathematical rules. But to correctly apply them is a different story. To do calculations without mistakes you need a lot of routine. The more you perform these calculations, the more you apply mathematical rules, the better you will perform. So, the message is do it, do it again and again.

  • There's more than one way to do it

Typically there is not only a single way to solve a problem. Think about different possibilities to correctly apply the mathematical rules you want to master. This will enhance your creativity and it also enables you to check the solution of your problem from a different point of view. It's a smart way to find mistakes.

  • Test and training situations are usually different

When you do exercises at home, don't think too much about timing constraints during tests. Use the private time to apply with care the calculation rules and don't be hasty. This way you can better train doing correct calculations. But sometimes it could also be useful to do some kind of test simulation.

  • Have fun and don't worry

It's not helpful for your mathematical development to worry too much about mistakes. Better laugh about them and try to see them as opportunity for improvement. Nobody is perfect and the others also fail sometimes.

  • Be confident! :-)
  • $\begingroup$ I like your answer format; it's pretty. "Do it again and again." I've been doing this, but it doesn't seem to be helping. "There's more than one way to do it" Would you recommend solving the problem multiple ways on a test? If I did this, I think I'd only finish about half the test. "Test and training situations are usually different." How would not being hasty help in private time? I already understand the mathematical concepts. "Be confident" Why should I, and how could I, be confident if I am incompetent? $\endgroup$
    – Kelmikra
    Nov 16, 2015 at 21:14
  • $\begingroup$ Kyth'Py1k: I like your comment. You're funny. $\endgroup$
    – epi163sqrt
    Nov 16, 2015 at 21:20

In the interest of not repeating things that have been told to you already, I'll try to offer something else. Be it in mathematics, athletics, music, public speaking, or anything based on performance, you will never reach your best unless you practice under duress. From what I've understood, the issue here is test-taking skills, not math skills.

If you're anything like me, during a test, you get nervous. Your heartrate increases, you start sweating a little bit, and your mind starts racing a bit more than usual. I've had the same experience in all of the above activities: mathematics, athletics, music,and public speaking. The only way you can conquer this is effectively simulating duress and practicing under it. You have to get used to it, or else you'll always perform at $<50$% of your capacity.

A few good methods for practicing are as follows (in order of increasing efficacy):

1) Practice with a timer. That is, if you have an hour long test, time yourself for an hour uninterrupted. For me, this doesn't work, because I know in my head that it doesn't really count for anything.

2) Make bets with friends. If you have friends in your classes, and good material to use as sample tests, put money (or some other bet) on your performance on a practice test. Maybe this isn't ideal, but you'll likely feel some sort of anxiety, and most people like to compete to beat their friends.

3) Practice before you sleep and when you aren't in the state of mind for focusing. If you've been reading silently for a few hours, no doubt you are pretty relaxed and able to focus. If you just get in the door and sit down to practice, you don't get time to collect yourself- just like on a test.

4) Practice beyond what you think is necessary. Many times I have felt ready, but in hindsight realized I wasn't. Many other times, I have spent in excess of $25$ hours studying for an exam I felt I was ready for initially. The end result for me has been that the latter case always results in success- no matter how hard the test or how much I panicked.

5) Learn everything. Provided you have time, don't dismiss things as "probably not on the test." If you don't have adequate time, prioritize.

A few good test-taking tips (which you may/may not have heard) are as follows:

1) Easy questions first. This speaks for itself.

2) If time-pressure is your problem, make your goal to solve all but one problem. Often-times the lack of time pressure makes you work better, and you end up having time for the test after-all. Not to mention, $9/10$ is better than $5/10$ from making mistakes everywhere.

3) Eat some chocolate or something with mild sugar content beforehand. This will make you a little bit more attentive. No coffee immediately before.

4) Sleep enough the night before, always. How much is enough is in the eye of the beholder, for me its $6$ hours, but if you need $8$, sleep for $8$.

5) Time out the problems, allot a roughly even amount of time for each one. If you indeed do the easiest questions first, you'll be ahead of schedule.

Maybe this is nothing new, but the way I read your question, this sounded more important than advice on mathematical mechanics.

  • $\begingroup$ On the first half of your answer: This looks like good advice for most people. However, it doesn't help me much because: ---<ol>1. Test anxiety isn't an issue for me. If anything, lacking an emotional investment in my test performance is my issue. 2. Same as above. 3. I think it would be better to go to tests with enough time to collect myself (which I do). 4. I do. 5. I do (as much as I can). $\endgroup$
    – Kelmikra
    Nov 18, 2015 at 5:10
  • $\begingroup$ What do you mean by lacking an emotional investment in your test performance? $\endgroup$ Nov 18, 2015 at 5:12
  • $\begingroup$ As for the second part: 1. It's difficult to determine which questions are easiest before starting to work on them, but I try. 2. I've found it's best for me to do solve problems at a moderate speed and then review my work once. This roughly corresponds to solving two thirds of the test questions. What exactly are the benefits to solving all but one problems instead? 3. I'll try the sugar tip, but why not drink coffee? It contains caffeine, and caffeine generally boasts attention. 4. I fail at this. I'll look into medication to help. 5. Wouldn't this result in lots of half-finished answers? $\endgroup$
    – Kelmikra
    Nov 18, 2015 at 5:23
  • $\begingroup$ Sorry for the poor wording "emotional investment." I meant I get few emotional or physical responses from taking tests or anticipated my scores. I don't get any sort of adrenaline rush before a test, I don't usually feel good about doing well on tests, and I don't usually feel bad about doing poorly. $\endgroup$
    – Kelmikra
    Nov 18, 2015 at 5:27
  • $\begingroup$ Coffee can cause feelings of paranoia, and if you're stressed out it'll exacerbate that. And personally, I doubt that you have no emotional investment- you wouldn't care so much about improving if you weren't on some level invested. $\endgroup$ Nov 18, 2015 at 5:36

This is not a question about mathematics; it's a more general question about learning to be consistent under pressure. How does a musician learn to perform a difficulty phrasing? How does a tennis player development an accurate backhand?

The answer is the same in both instances. You practise again and again to be perfect under relaxed conditions. Only when you can do it flawlessly without any pressure do you increase tempo or the level of difficulty, and then only slowly.

It's the same with mathematics. When you practise, you should be much more concerned with accuracy than speed. You should make sure that you have a really complete understanding of all the nuances of the problems you look at. When you are given enough time, you should not make a single mistake. Working tirelessly at eradicate mistakes at a low tempo will breed good habits; in particular, the habit of not making mistakes.

Will this solve your problems? Not necessarily. Not everyone can learn to be as quick as von Neumann. Not everyone can play the violin like Jascha Heifetz, or tennis like Björn Borg. But everyone can improve, and I don't think there is a better way to do so.

  • $\begingroup$ "You practise again and again to be perfect under relaxed conditions. Only when you can do it flawlessly without any pressure do you increase tempo or the level of difficulty, and then only slowly." If this is the case, then would never increase the level of difficulty, as there is no level that it too easy for me to make a mistake on. I can mess up on 9 + 3. I've been approximating your advice by practicing on problems in general, but it hasn't been working out for me. Thoughts? $\endgroup$
    – Kelmikra
    Nov 20, 2015 at 10:03

I used to have this problem quite a bit, and it still regularly relapses. It tends to happen the most when I am unintentionally thinking about previous steps or future steps in the solution, rather than the one I'm actually, currently doing. I also have a tendency to just "jump right in" and start solving before I have thoroughly reviewed the question, and it often happens then.

The method that helps me most is to be thorough in the solution, mainly by recording all the steps and avoiding mental calculations. Consider the example:

$$ \int \frac{1}{x+1}dx = \int \frac{1}{u} du = \ln |u| + C = \ln|x+1| + C $$

I know the answer from the start, but I still record every possible step. It takes more time, but it means that I can very quicly find a careless mistake. It also helps to find easier ways to check your work. If I had a very complex definite integral, it might be easier to estimate the area using geometry than by re-analyzing all of my steps. Also use your calculator to check arithmetic.

If all else fails, temporarily skip the problem and come back after successfully solving two other problems. You will likely forget about the original problem and give your brain a chance to refresh.

I realize I haven't provided a method to avoid the mistakes altogether. I'm not sure there is one. Hopefully this advice will at least help you manage the problems better; it definitely helps me.

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the answer. Alas, I already heard about and have been using this technique. I unfortunately forgot to mention it when asking the question. $\endgroup$
    – Kelmikra
    Oct 27, 2015 at 4:17
  • $\begingroup$ I think I'm misunderstanding the meaning of a single step, as when trying to do a single step at a time, I spent roughly 40 minutes working on a single problem on a practice exam, which is half of the exam time, and did not finish it. Would a single step be something like going from $2x + y + 2x = 4 $ to $2x + 2x + y = 4$? Doing anything more would seem to take more than a single step. $\endgroup$
    – Kelmikra
    Nov 23, 2015 at 8:03

May I ask you to scan a piece of your calculations? I know it seems strange but I'm saying that because I've been noticing that many times the reason for miscalculation in highschool/undergraduate students tests is a calligraphic problem.

Most of the times students write numbers and long calculation in a way which very very often lead to miscalculation. Even if the writing itself is fine, but many times is not suitable for long mathematical-analytical calculations.

For example letters too big, to circular, too separated, while perfectly fine in an english test or even in higher mathematics, many times in straight and force brute calculations can lead to errors.

I know seems strange and maybe off-topic but since nobody pointed that out until now I wanted to ask ...

  • $\begingroup$ Here you go. Sorry about it being sideways. The crossed off parts are errors I made. $\endgroup$
    – Kelmikra
    Nov 21, 2015 at 6:10
  • $\begingroup$ That's more or less what I meant... Try the following: 1. use a pen and not a pencil (you were not erasing anyway and ink is really more readble) 2. use white paper 3. try to make a minus sign more readable 4. go slower but try to write nicer and a more readable way I think that doing this You will improve drastically you miscalculation rate $\endgroup$
    – Dac0
    Nov 21, 2015 at 6:31

When the examiners mark papers they are more interested in correct methodology instead of algebraic accuracy, so if you make an 'algebraic slip' but your logic is correct you will only lose at most one or two marks. This is known as "error carried forward" and to illustrate this; imagine you were asked to evaluate $$I=\int_{x=1}^{\sqrt{3}}\frac{1-x^2}{1+x^2}\mathrm{d}x$$ and you recognise that an appropriate substitution would be $x=\tan\theta\implies\mathrm{d}x=\sec^2\theta \mathrm{d}\theta$ then you change the limits $x=1\implies \theta = \tan^{-1}(1)=\frac{\pi}{4}$ and you accidentally write $x=\sqrt{3}\implies \theta = \tan^{-1}(\sqrt{3})=\color{red}{\frac{\pi}{6}}$ (instead of the correct $\color{green}{\frac{\pi}{3}}$). So you continue and deduce that

$$\int_{x=1}^{\sqrt{3}}\frac{1-x^2}{1+x^2}\mathrm{d}x=\int_{\theta=\frac{\pi}{4}}^{\frac{\pi}{6}}\frac{1-\tan^2\theta}{1+\tan^2\theta}\sec^2\theta \mathrm{d}\theta$$ and you successfully recall the identity $1+\tan^2\theta \equiv \sec^2\theta$ then $$I=\int_{\theta=\frac{\pi}{4}}^{\frac{\pi}{6}}\frac{1-\tan^2\theta}{\sec^2\theta}\sec^2\theta \mathrm{d}\theta=\int_{\theta=\frac{\pi}{4}}^{\frac{\pi}{6}}({1-\tan^2\theta}) \mathrm{d}\theta=\int_{\theta=\frac{\pi}{4}}^{\frac{\pi}{6}}({1-(\sec^2\theta-1)}) \mathrm{d}\theta$$$$=\int_{\theta=\frac{\pi}{4}}^{\frac{\pi}{6}}({2-\sec^2\theta}) \mathrm{d}\theta=\left(2\theta-\tan\theta \right)\bigg|_{\theta=\frac{\pi}{4}}^{\frac{\pi}{6}}=\left(\frac{2\pi}{6}-\tan\frac{\pi}{6}\right)-\left(\frac{2\pi}{4}-\tan\frac{\pi}{4}\right)=\left(\frac{\pi}{3}-\frac{1}{\sqrt{3}}\right)-\left(\frac{\pi}{2}-1\right)=\color{red}{1-\frac{\pi}{6}-\frac{1}{\sqrt{3}}}$$ instead of the correct answer of $\color{green}{1+\frac{\pi}{6}-\sqrt{3}}$. If this question was worth $10$ marks in an exam you would get at least $8$ or maybe $9$ marks even though the end answer (marked $\color{red}{\mathrm{red}}$) is incorrect.

So, since time is an issue the best advice I can give you is to check your working once but no more. Do this to save time for showing the examiners correct logical reasoning (which is the most important part); as the objective is to score as many marks as possible your priority should be to move on as quickly as possible and answer as many questions as fully as possible.

Also, when I took my math exams, to acquire some confidence early on in the paper I used to underline the questions that I felt I could handle; and answer those first. Since you are not obligated to answer the questions in order.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I think we have different types of graders. When I make a careless mistakes, I usually lose roughly half the points. I even once got a 0/6 for forgetting a 2. $\endgroup$
    – Kelmikra
    Nov 20, 2015 at 20:43
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Kyth'Py1k That's pretty harsh taking away half the marks for one algebraic slip, you have my sympathy. In that case the only advice I can give you is in my last paragraph: answer the questions you feel more comfortable with first to get some confidence at the start of the test. Then you will feel more at ease when it comes to the harder ones, knowing that you have got some decent marks already. I just can't believe they punish students like that for a single error. Anyway, best of luck to you :) $\endgroup$
    – BLAZE
    Nov 20, 2015 at 22:19
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I don't think doing the easy questions first would help, as I'm relaxed when taking tests, probably too relaxed. $\endgroup$
    – Kelmikra
    Nov 21, 2015 at 4:16
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @Kyth'Py1k: Your kind of graders is one reason why many people hate mathematics. I hope you don't give up on the beauty that they don't want you to enjoy! =) $\endgroup$
    – user21820
    Nov 27, 2015 at 10:01

You are experiencing a paradoxical problem. You understand the concepts, but you misapply them. You barely finish tests in time, but you have had great confidence that you did them perfectly or nearly perfectly.

Many people find they "freeze up" on tests due to stress, and they then forget how to do things. Possibly you have the opposite problem. You may be too relaxed.

In my experience, to do well on a timed exam I need to be in an unusual psychological state. I did not quite realize this until I had been out in the workforce for a few years, where I had days, weeks, or even months to work out the solutions to problems, and then decided to to back to school. I found out I had forgotten how to take timed exams, and had to relearn it.

While out of school I had not forgotten how to do math, but I had come to take twice as long to work a problem in an exam setting than I did when I was a student.

A little panic (but not too much) can keep you moving and help you maintain a focus on doing what you need to do to answer a question. A little fear (but not too much) can make you more alert to mistakes that you may be making.

Clearly, whatever you've done during practice has not helped, except for a some minor improvements in your technique. Actually, improvements in your technique should be a major goal of practice, not an incidental byproduct. Forty hours a week is an awful long time to spend on practice; somehow, you need to practice much more effectively in less time.

I have rarely if ever tried doing the same problem multiple ways on an exam, but I find it is useful to do the same problem multiple ways outside of an exam setting. There are various benefits to this. One benefit, of course, is that you get practice in each technique you use, but a particular benefit is that you have a chance to compare the effectiveness of the different techniques that can be applied to a particular kind of problem: which ones are easier to apply, faster, and less error-prone. The best technique for one kind of problem may not be the best for another kind of problem, even when it is applicable to both kinds of problems. In fact, the best technique for someone else to solve a particular problem may not be the best for you to use on that same problem; this is something that only you can discover for yourself.

In short, the point of practice is to solve problems faster and with fewer errors. If you see no improvement in speed and no improvement in accuracy, you need to try different techniques or different variations on your techniques.

The particular example you give, transforming $4(c+b)$ to $4c + b$, is an all-to-likely mistake to make. We write formulas out in a sequential fashion, left to right, but the distributive law does not work in such a sequential fashion: it's more like filling in the cells of a rectangular grid. If you are multiplying a multinomial of $m$ terms by a multinomial of $n$ terms, you are (in effect) filling in the cells of an $m \times n$ grid. Every cell needs to be filled with the product of some term from the first multinomial with some term from the second multinomial. Distributing a monomial (such as $4$) over a multinomial (such as $c + b$) is really no different; the grid in this case is merely $1 \times 2$ cells. If you remember that every term of the product of your input expressions needs to be the product of two terms from the input expressions, I think you're a lot less likely to simply copy the $b$ from one line to the next and forget to multiply by $4$.

There is even a technique in the U. S. Common Core math curricula that has students literally drawing a grid in order to perform multiplication. I have never done this myself, but I do find that a mental "grid" is a useful visualization. An easy and quick check of my accuracy is simply to count the number of terms in the product: if I multiplied an $m$-term multinomial by an $n$-term multinomial, there should be $mn$ terms in the product. (For this reason, I will often delay combining terms, for example I may write $+4xy$ and $+2xy$ in two places in my answer rather than just writing $+6xy$ once, until after I've counted the terms.) For a complicated product where there's a chance I did one term twice and forgot another, I might methodically step through each term of the first multinomial and (for each term of the other multinomial) check that I have written the product of the two terms; and when I find that product I literally make a mark to check it off so I don't count it again.

In some cases I have even written out products of multinomials in "long multiplication" format (as if I were multiplying multiple-digit numbers) on a piece of scrap paper. Come to think of it, maybe that Common Core grid could be a useful technique to use literally, sometimes.

You don't necessarily want to use any of the techniques exactly as I have described them, but you do want to find techniques that work for you to multiply multinomials by other multinomials or by monomials. You need to find techniques that are fast and accurate when you use them.

You also need to find fast and accurate techniques for doing every other thing on which you have made errors in the past. There is unlikely to be a single "silver bullet" that will fix everything. The patterns to look for probably aren't going to be recurring throughout all the mistakes you make; you might want to consider any mistake you have made more than once to be a "pattern".

After you have found fast and accurate techniques to do a few of the operations that have been giving you trouble, try the techniques again and make sure they are still fast and accurate. It does no good to discover a technique if you later forget how to do it.

Until you can take a past exam paper, or a set of exercises from a textbook comparable to one of your exams, and completely work them out under exam conditions with plenty of time to spare (checking this with a clock), don't tell yourself you have mastered the techniques or even understood the material.

And once you have mastered suitable techniques, and learned how to recognize which techniques to apply to which problems, you should be finishing your exams quickly enough that you do have time to apply some of the other self-checking methods that have been suggested.


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