How to Improve Your Math and Science Grades

Do you find math and science classes hard? You are not alone; 42% of Americans say they disliked math class in elementary school and high school. Math and science classes are typically more difficult to study for and learn than humanities classes, as they involve complicated problem solving and formulaic thinking. In her book A Mind For Numbers, Barbara Oakley, a professor of computer science, states that she disliked math and science when she was a child and even flunked algebra in college. After that experience, she decided to rewire her brain and teach herself how to get better at studying math and science subjects. 

In her findings, Dr. Oakley discovers that our brain switches frequently between 2 sets of thought processes: focused thinking and diffused thinking. The focused mode uses the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that handles logical and analytical thinking, to consciously concentrate on a topic. The diffuse mode is when your brain is in a relaxed state, and your mind wanders and creatively combines scattered thoughts and ideas from different parts of the brain. Focused mode is better for intense study while diffuse mode is better for big picture thinking. For example, when you’re exploring abstract concepts such as integrals and interval notation, you would want to use diffuse mode. When studying for your physics exam, you would use focused mode to concentrate on solving difficult problems. 

To learn math and science, you need to use focused mode to analyze a problem and apply formulaic thinking and sequential equations, and the diffuse mode to grasp abstract concepts. Both modes are important to learning. You can apply the Pomodoro method to evenly distribute your time between focused and diffuse modes. 

Another concept that is essential to forming better ways of learning math and science is the 2 types of memory systems that exist in your brain: short term and long term memory. Short term memory is working memory that holds information you are processing consciously. It has a limited capacity and can hold about 4 chunks of information at any point in time. Long term memory can store huge amounts of knowledge and material, but it is more difficult to access the information than with short term memory. 

Now that we touched upon some key concepts to studying for STEM subjects, here are some ways to improve your math and science performance.

Distributed Practice

Math and science are better learned in small regular increments. Daily practice is essential to get your brain used to solving problems and grasping concepts. Put aside an hour or two each day to practice math problems. Revisit previously learned scientific concepts to let your brain absorb what it needs to master the material.


Chunks are bits of information that are connected by meaning. When you first learn something, it is difficult to form chunks because you are processing new ideas and concepts as separate components. With enough practice, your brain forms neural connections between different chunks of information. Chunking frees up your working memory and your brain gets better at retrieving information. 

Improving your memory

Instead of rote memorization, engage your five senses to improve your memory. You can use visual learning techniques to create imagery associated with facts, ideas, and concepts. A popular technique is creating a memory palace, which is a mental construct composed of “rooms” where you store visual metaphors, mnemonics, and stories representing concepts you need to retain to help improve your memory. 

Healthy habits

In order to excel at math and science, you need brief periods of intense study in focused mode followed by breaks of diffuse mode. Cramming for tests puts a heavy burden on working memory and prevents information from being encoded into long term memory storage effectively. The key to overcoming procrastination is to build healthy habits. Daily exercise helps you build the discipline to form a good study routine. It also enhances your cognitive functioning for better performance on exams. Regular sleep at fixed times is essential for encoding memories in long term storage as well as helping your brain process and create meaningful connections. Eating healthy foods is essential for brain health and keeping your energy levels high for peak performance during studying and exam-taking. 

The combination of these methods will drastically improve your math and science grades. It will also help you to enjoy learning and studying for these subjects. Keeping your mind and body healthy along with utilizing your brain in effective practice will guide you along the way to mastery of math and science subjects. In no time, you will soon enjoy studying for that calculus exam!

About the Author

Shirley Xu

Shirley Xu

Shirley Xu is an experienced STEM tutor at GooRoo. She tutors a variety of subjects including math, science, and programming. Gooroo is a tutoring membership that matches students to tutors based on their customized learning needs.