Many of you will be starting, or have just started, the new school year. What should you be doing to make a success of your mathematics course?

Will I be expected to know topics at a more advanced level before I start?
Some of you will find mathematics comes easily to you, and you are looking forward to new challenges in the subject. Others will be anxious that it’s all going to be above your head. Let me allay those fears by saying that, whichever level you are taking mathematics, the starting point will be where you are now, and you will cover many topics that you have already studied, but in more detail – Quadratic Equations, for example. True, some topics will be entirely new, for example, Logic in Maths Studies, Correlation Coefficients in SL, Complex Numbers in HL, but your teachers won’t expect you to know anything about these before you start learning about them.

I’m doing the Studies course – how advanced is the Mathematics?
The Studies syllabus has been designed to be approachable to non-mathematicians. So, for example, you will find algebra and graphs taken to a slightly higher level, but these shouldn’t be out of your reach. Many of the questions involve mathematics to solve approachable, real-life problems – in other words, practical applications rather than more abstract theory.

Is there anything I can do to prepare for the year ahead?
For each syllabus there is a body of knowledge called “prior learning” – these are topics that you are expected to know before your course begins. Your school should be able to supply the document to you, or there are plenty of schools and individual teachers that publish the list, often as part of the overall syllabus, online. It’s important that you check through the list, and aim to brush up on any topics where there are gaps in your knowledge and understanding. There’s plenty of online help, including some excellent YouTube videos.

Do I need a Graphical Display Calculator (GDC)?
Absolutely! Buy one now if you haven’t already got one, but first see if your school recommends a particular model. HL and SL students can use the GDC in Paper 2, Studies students in both papers. Some questions can only be answered using the GDC. Get used to its functionality right from the start of your course, particularly for graphs, statistics and equation solving – again, there’s plenty of help online, and I have co-written a book explaining how the TI-84 and the TI-Inspire can be used in all three courses.

Any advice for the year ahead?
Let me give you just three tips:

  1. Keep up! Imagine your course a bit like a brick wall: the bricks higher up the wall need the bricks underneath to be firmly in place. If you’re having problems with a particular topic, do everything you can to resolve the problems – you will need full understanding when you build on that topic later in the course.
  2. Detail is vitally important. Exam questions are all about detail. For example, if you think that 6x – 3(x – 2) = 3x – 6, then you don’t fully understand how to multiply out brackets. That one slip could lead to a whole solution going wrong. And detail can be forgotten very quickly: within a week, you can easily forget 80% of everything you’ve done in school that week, so it’s vital to practise exercises, take notes, annotate books – whatever helps you to remember.
  3. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you don’t understand something, or you can’t get a question right. Ask your teacher, talk to your friends, look online. By all means work with someone else, BUT, don’t just copy their work. It may help you finish an assignment on time, but your understanding won’t improve – and that will lead to worse problems later on.