Where to start when you don't know where to start

Right! That's it. I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it any more.

If one more student looks at a question and says "I don't know where to start!" I'm going to... I'm going to... I'm going to FROWN and look at them VERY CROSSLY.

Because I can read your mind, you know. I know exactly what's going on in there: you're thinking "That's a lot of information. If I skim through it and play dumb, probably Colin will do it for me!"

Well, no longer. At least, not until you've done something for me: before I help you, you're going to summarise the information.


If you're a detective and there's been a murder, you don't sit down with all the witness statements and forensic evidence and say "I don't know where to start." You start making notes, you start drawing pictures, you start asking questions. Before you know it, you're feeling the bad guy's collar and saying 'you're nicked, matey.'

Guess what? It's the same thing in maths, without the dead bodies and car chases.

Maths is easier than police-work, because normally you need to use every bit of information you're given and it's all true - you don't get told about stuff that's not important and none of the questions lie to you (at least, not in a way that stops you solving them).

If you've got a question you don't know where to start with, read through it and write down anything that could be helpful. What numbers do they give? What words do they use? What are they asking you to find?

Turn the information into bullet points and/or a big picture (use half a page or more).

Then you can start asking questions - how can I combine these pieces of information? What conclusions can I draw from them? What would I need to be able to solve this?

Once you've done that, I'll be happy to help. But don't make me angry. You wouldn't like me when I'm angry.


Colin is a Weymouth maths tutor, author of several Maths For Dummies books and A-level maths guides. He started Flying Colours Maths in 2008. He lives with an espresso pot and nothing to prove.


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Where do you teach?

I teach in my home in Abbotsbury Road, Weymouth.

It's a 15-minute walk from Weymouth station, and it's on bus routes 3, 8 and X53. On-road parking is available nearby.

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