Your Worst School Subject: How to Tackle it, Ace it and Save Your Overall Grade

About the Author
Stephanie Allen read Classics and English at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, and is currently researching a PhD in Early Modern Academic Drama at the University of Fribourg.











I am very, very bad at Maths.

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I simply haven’t got a Maths brain: I can do all the basic stuff, like adding and subtracting, finding ‘X’ – even, on a good day, vectors or differentiation. But put anything even slightly complicated, involving trigonometry, proofs or that most insidious of instruments, the graphical calculator, in front of me, and my mind instantaneously goes blank. The mere words ‘binomial theorem’ are enough to make me shudder. I wasted hours of my teenage years staring woefully at pages scored with crossings-out, as equations refused to resolve themselves into nice, whole numbers; numbers swam on pages etc.
When I was at school, my strategy was simply to ignore the bleak, chilly world of Sine and Cosine. I’d dash off my homework and tests, getting terrible grades, while cheerfully maintaining that ‘I just don’t do that’ and directing my energies towards things I found more interesting and fulfilling. But it always niggled at me – once I’d switched off, sitting through classes became really stressful and frustrating; whenever I thought about how behind I was I got a panicky, slightly sicky feeling in the pit of my stomach. And as you can probably guess, my strategy was deeply flawed: at my school we had to do Maths until we were eighteen – and worse, we had to sit exams at the end of the course, which counted towards our overall diploma scores, and the results of which I write down on my CV to this day.

I finally realised something had to be done about six weeks before my IB exams, when I got the abysmal grade of 2 out of 7 in a mock exam. It struck me, all of a sudden, that if I ended up with a 2 after the real thing, I’d probably not get the overall grade I needed to get into university. What’s more, I realised that it couldn’t be that hard to do just-about okay: the next lowest mark in my class had been a 4 out of 7. I couldn’t possibly be two whole points dumber than everyone else. And this, actually, proved true: when I finally sat down and forced myself to go back to basics, and learn each topic out of the book, from scratch, I found that contrary to my own much-repeated maxim, I did do Maths. I still found graphs and triangles and equations unfriendly and bewildering, not to mention spectacularly dull – and I often couldn’t muster the will to tackle the hardest questions – but I could now force myself through the average exam paper, and come out with a grade that, if not mind-blowing, was at least respectable.
Lots of us have to do subjects we don’t like, and find difficult, to a high level – some as far as university and after. And lots of students deploy the same avoidance tactics as I did, ignoring the problem, and hoping some freak Martian landing on exam day might mean it never comes back to haunt them. However, the best possible thing you can do with a nightmare subject is to tackle it early – not only will the leisure of time improve your chances of being able to catch up, and come out with a grade you can be proud of, but, perhaps more importantly, getting up to scratch will boost your confidence hugely, and make you feel an awful lot better about how school is going. This article will suggest some ways that you can do this.

Work out what the problem is

Studies show that in general, Asian students are better at Maths and Sciences than their European counterparts. Their knowledge is wider, deeper and more detailed. They find it easier to make the jump from high school programmes to university ones. Despite the mythology, research suggests that this isn’t because all Asian students are super-Maths-geniuses, or work incredibly hard. Rather, it’s because way those subjects are taught and learned differs from place to place. This relates to the topic of nightmare subjects, because while you might naturally be more inclined to like and succeed in one area of academia, it’s very unlikely that you simply can’t do another: it’s far more likely that you’re getting something wrong in your methodology.

Working out what this problem is, moreover, is the first step to getting on top of things. In general, this is usually one of a few things:

– Not understanding concepts or ideas
– Struggling to learn large swathes of information
– Not being able to apply knowledge in an exam or coursework context
It may be that you struggle with more than one of these problems in your least favourite subjects. It may even be that you struggle with all three, in different topics respectively. But once you figure out what the problem is, or what the problems are, you can stop feeling hopeless and doomed to failure, stop trotting out phrases like ‘I’m just rubbish at Physics’, and start to address it.

Talk to your teacher

Getting your teacher’s opinion on your progress is another good starting-point: they’ll be able to tell you if there’s anything specific you need to improve on. To this day, I’m still surprised each time I ask for the opinion of a university tutor on my work, how clearly they can see things I’d never have thought of, and how helpful their thoughts are. Your teacher might be able to give you extra work, or suggest something you can do, a book you can read, or a website you can visit in your own time. They might even tell you to stop worrying, get out of their office and go and enjoy your youth!

Ideas for improvement

Understanding concepts

– Explain it to someone else. Reading and listening are passive, and it’s all-too-easy to get distracted or give up when you come across something tough. Teaching something, on the other hand, is active – it forces you to process information, and regurgitate it in words you think someone else will understand. So pick a difficult concept, and try and explain it to someone who does understand it. Get them to interrupt you if you go wrong – but leave you to figure out why and correct yourself.
– Go back to basics. It’s unbelievably boring and time-consuming, but there is a certain satisfaction in sitting down with a text book, beginning with the very simplest information at the beginning of a chapter, and making sure you understand each step, and can do each exercise, until you get the hardest stuff. This is how I improved at Maths.
– Consult the syllabus. Teachers and text books try to make things interesting and relevant – and sometimes clarity is sacrificed in their efforts to explain. Sometimes, especially if you find something difficult, you don’t want or need to know how it can be applied, or another topic that it links to – you just want to know the very basics, the bare minimum, exactly what you need to know to get you through a test. Consult the syllabus for just this information. Often, I’ve found, things are a lot simpler than you might initially think.

Learning information

In subjects like History, Biology, or languages, there is often a huge amount of information to be remembered and reproduced. Success in these subjects requires lots of mundane leg-work learning lists of verbs, the names of niche molecules or types of fungus, or names and dates. My Latin teacher used to make us learn to recite huge chunks of Ciceronian speeches. Most people don’t learn well from lists on pages, so try presenting this information in fun and creative ways (I maintain that learning dates can be fun!) to get it into your brain.
– Diagrams, pictures and posters. Get your felt tips out! If you’re the sort of person that imagines information in colours, or places (or you just like a doodle) you can have fun making posters or diagrams, and perhaps even display them round your room, living room or loo to reinforce the information frequently.

– Record yourself and listen. Use your phone to record yourself talking through the information you need to learn, or simply reading out your notes, and listen to it while you do something mindless like go for a walk or lie in bed. There is something about the cringing horror of listening to your own voice (am I really that high-pitched?! Is that my accent?) that makes things stick fast in your brain.

– Recite. It’s very Victorian, but I actually like learning to recite long lists of Latin verb endings, or lines of poetry to reproduce in exams. Of course, this will vary from person to person, but I find that once I’ve learned something by reciting it over and over, it’ll stick in my head indefinitely – I can still remember, word-perfect, the poems I learned for IB English exams six years ago! Try it out and see if it works for you.

– Link information to actions. Some people remember better if their memorising is accompanied by action – pacing while learning lines for a play, for example. Others learn spatially: doing little actions to remember the definitions of words, or associating different dates with particular places in their heads. 

Nailing exams

I know a student who liked to revise Chemistry by re-writing notes. She got through about four refill pads on that subject alone, simply re-writing her revision notes. By the end, she knew every single thing on the syllabus – the properties of an Aldehyde, and how many Carbons and Hydrogens it contains; the exact effect of an amphetamine on the human body; endless ways of testing pH. She was a brilliant Chemist, and she loved the subject, but despite this, got a ‘C’ in her first A-level exam. Though she knew Chemistry inside out, she hadn’t practised applying her knowledge to actual exam questions – assuming that the information alone would be fine.
This is a problem students face just as much in essay subjects like Economics or History: in making sure you cover everything, it’s all-too-easy to lose marks because you can’t translate your knowledge to answering the question on the paper. There’s a simple answer to this, and it is also pretty obvious: practise! Use exam questions the whole way through your high school career, and always think about how you’d organise your knowledge into an essay in subjects where it’s relevant. Using past papers will additionally help you get used to the format of exam papers, the way questions are phrased, and the sorts of questions that come up a lot. What’s more, it will fill you with confidence when entering your exams to know what to expect.

Things take time

Getting better at subjects you hate or find difficult won’t happen overnight because you get the hang of a concept, make a useful poster or do really well on a past paper. These things take time, and lots of it: it’ll be worth it in the end, when it all starts to feel easier, or you come out with a grade you’re happy with, but do be prepared to dedicate a lot of energy to getting better at something. Start as early as possible (N.B. take it from me – 6 weeks before your final exams is NOT early enough!), and make it a regular, scheduled extra thing: you might dedicate two hours, each week, on a Saturday morning; or 45 minutes three evenings a week after school. Don’t plan to do so much that you can’t stick to it: it’s far more important to do a little bit, and often, than to have one whole enthusiastic, productive day that never happens again.

Image credits: banner; Maths; Singapore; teacher; periodic table; exam