Show Your Work!

show work

Whether you’re taking the SAT, the ACT, or Algebra II, it’s a good idea to always show your work.

Writing things down helps you think! Some students seem to think the proper way to do a math problem is to devise a multi-step plan and then follow it through step by step. If they can’t think of Step 3, they won’t even bother writing down Step 1. People who are good at math don’t do it that way. They write down Step 1 and then start thinking about Step 2. Sometimes I don’t even know what Step 1 is, but I write down something. I’ll even copy down equations given in the problem. It might seem like a waste of time, but it gets the wheels turning.

When you think about it, algebra is pretty simple. There are two basic rules:

  • Combine like terms.
  • If you do something to one side of an equation, you have to do it to the other side.

That’s the gist of it. So if you don’t know where to begin on an algebra problem, start by combining like terms. You’ll probably get somewhere.

Geometry is pretty simple too—at least on the SAT and ACT. The basic rules are:

  • A line has 180°.
  • A triangle has 180°
  • Vertical angles are equal:

equal angles

Most angle problems on the SAT and ACT can be solved with these three rules. So if you’re stuck on a geometry problem, start labeling angles.

Another reason to show your work is that doing so will help you identify your mistakes. Think about it: if you miss a math problem because you forgot to distribute a minus sign, but you didn’t bother to write anything down, you’ll never know what went wrong. The best way to study for any standardized test is to practice frequently and review any problems you miss. You can’t learn from your mistakes if you don’t know what they are, so it’s important to have a record of your thought process.

Keep your work neat and organized. Try to make it look like the demonstration problems in an algebra textbook. Anyone else ought to be able to look at your work and know what you were thinking. Showing each step may seem tedious, but it’s the fastest way to become better at math. After a while, you’ll see results. Your skills and confidence will improve. Then you can start doing some of the steps in your head, but in the beginning, it’s important to write down everything!

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