The Proven Way to Ace Mental Arithmetic (Even When Maths Isn’t Your Thing)

“I really struggle with mental arithmetic.”

“Mental arithmetic is giving me panic attacks.”

“The mental arithmetic is a joke.”

Without a doubt, the most common source of stress in the QTS skills tests is the mental arithmetic section of the numeracy test. It allows no room for in-depth thinking, for long and intricate methods or for checking answers with a calculator. Instead it tests your ability to perform quick-fire calculations set in an educational context.

Part of the problem that many people find with the mental arithmetic questions is how unfamiliar they are. This style of numeracy test is very different to the GCSE maths exams that you have done before.

The good news is that this can be overcome. As you become familiar with the style of the exam and learn how to prepare for it, I believe with all my heart that it is within the capability of anybody (including you) to pass.

I have attempted to outline in this article some of the keys to success that are tested and proven and that I am certain can work for you.


A Sure-Fire Study Technique: Kill The Time Pressure

Picture the scene. You are sitting at your computer with unfamiliar questions being fired at you through your earphones at regular intervals. As you are attempting to get your head around how to tackle the question, in the back of your mind a clock is counting down.







Before you know it, your time has elapsed and another question is fired through your earphones.

This is a recipe for disaster.

Before you have gained any insight about a question you are forced to move on. Your progress is cut off and your stress builds.

Before worrying about the time limit, you need to convince yourself that you know what you are doing. You need to become familiar with the kind of questions you will be asked and confident in tackling them.

So ignore the clock.

Sit down with some practice questions and just worry about answering them. Take as long as it takes. The goal at this point isn’t to be quick; it’s just to be right.

And if there are any that you don’t know how to do, it’s good that you have discovered them at this point. Get yourself a good revision guide and study up on the topics of those questions. Come back to it and see if you can work your way to the solution.

It might take a little while, but as you get used to the exams, hopefully you will get to a point where you begin to score quite highly on these unlimited time versions of the test.

Once you are regularly scoring at least ten out of twelve, it is probably the moment to introduce a little bit of time pressure.

Ease yourself in though.

Have a go at a test where you read the question twice and then allow yourself thirty seconds to answer (rather than the eighteen you would normally have). This should begin conditioning you to speed up your methods without being too daunting.

Once you are finding success with a thirty second time limit, try reducing it to twenty-four. And then when you are regularly scoring highly at this, bring it down to eighteen.

By the time you are practicing with the actual time limit, you will have command of a range of quick-fire strategies that you will be confident using and will have experience of choosing the right strategy for the question.

Hopefully you will start to develop an instinct for how to answer each question.


Three Crucial Exam Hacks

There are some skills that come up so often in the exam that if you could get good at them, you would have won half the battle before entering the room.


1. Times Tables

There isn’t time to spare struggling to recall your times tables facts. As you are performing more complex calculations, it is crucial that you have instant recall of basic times table facts. Make sure you learn up to the twelve times table and go higher if you can.

Whilst looking at a times tables grid may seem like an intimidatingly large amount of answers to commit to memory, the chances are that you already know many of them. The ones that you struggle with can probably be narrowed down to a few in the middle of the grid – 6×12, 7×8 and so on.

Write these unfamiliar ones on cards and spend a few minutes each day turning over cards at random and answering the question that you wrote on them. You will be surprised how quickly they stick in your memory!

For more on this, take a look at my article on getting lighting quick at your times tables.


2. Fractions, Decimals & Percentages

On each mental arithmetic test are several questions that require you to convert between fractions, decimals and percentages. If you can understand the link between the three then you give yourself a huge advantage.

A percentage is simply a decimal multiplied by 100. This means that the decimal point is shifted two places. 0.76 becomes 76% and 0.4 becomes 40%. The same is true when moving in the opposite direction. 83% becomes 0.83 and 7% becomes 0.07.

A percentage can also be written over 100 to give a fraction. 29% is the same as 29/100. This means too that a two-digit decimal can be written over 100 so 0.41 = 41/100.

When you start with a fraction, find an equivalent fraction with 100 on the bottom and the top of it will be your percentage. So 7/25 is equivalent to 28/100 (because both numbers have been multiplied by 4), which is 28% or 0.28. You may need to simplify the fraction before you can do this.


3. Break Numbers Down

To make your calculation easier, split hard numbers into manageable bits.

When you are adding or taking, you can find two numbers that add up to the number and do the calculations separately. For example, if you need to add eighty-seven to a number, you could add eighty and then add seven. To take eighty-seven from a number would work in the same way; take eighty and then take seven from the answer.

When you need to multiply or divide, break a number up into two numbers that multiply to give the number and again perform the calculations separately. To multiply by thirty you could multiply by three and then multiply the answer by ten. To divide by forty-five, you could divide by five and then divide the answer by nine.


How to Get an Infinite Supply of Practice Questions

First, get yourself a bunch of practice tests. Download the free ones on this site, and you might consider buying a pack too to give you a good starting supply.

There is only a certain number of things you could be asked!

If you get used to these questions, there is very little that could come up that would surprise you.

Write the questions out on cards and shuffle them. Mix them up and create your own practice tests by randomly selecting twelve questions.

Once you have done each of the questions a few times, then change the numbers for other ones that seem a similar level of difficulty (or ask somebody else to change them to keep it a surprise to you).

By recycling and changing the questions in this way you give yourself access to a truly infinite supply of questions with which to practice your skills.


A Super-Smart Way to Break Down Your Time

They tell you that you only have eighteen seconds to answer each question.

But that’s not quite true.

You have eighteen seconds after the question has been read twice.

The smart play is to start working before that.

When the question is being read for the first time, jot down on your white board anything that seems important. Make sure you have the numbers and key words written down.

More often than not, this will be all you need and you will be able to start working out the answer whilst they are reading the question for the second time, giving you those few extra crucial seconds.

On the odd occasion where you weren’t clear on exactly what to do from the first reading, you can always revert to plan B and listen to it again – you will still have your eighteen seconds to give it a try.


Bonus Tip

Before the twelve questions are asked, you will hear a practice question to make sure the headphones work.

You don’t really need to pay attention to what is said – just so long as the voice is clearly coming through your headphones.

Why not use this time to jot down some bits on your white board that could come in handy later? Perhaps one of your more challenging times tables, or the multiples of sixty to help you with questions about minutes and seconds.


Practice, Practice, Practice

The techniques in this article are just that. Techniques.

They really do help and they really do make a difference. They are tried and tested and have proven effective with people whose confidence in mental arithmetic was absolute zero.

But there is no such thing as a guarantee.

These techniques are not short cuts.

On the contrary.

They are strategies to make the most of hard work, preparation and lots of practice.

I truly believe you can succeed in mental arithmetic, but the key is your willingness to invest the time, put in the hard yards and practice, practice and practice some more.