Last year a change of format to their first-ever maths exam left some New Zealand high school students in tears and saw dozens of complaints laid with testing authorities.

William Guzzo, General Manager of high school tutoring company Inspiration Education.

As thousands of Year 11 students head into the MCAT (mathematics common assessment task) exam today and on Thursday, a Kiwi tutor has some advice to help them through.

MCAT is a Level 1 maths exam and is the first exam for many students sitting NCEA.

Last year’s format change caused upset and prompted dozens of teachers and parents to complain to NZQA.

Founder of tutoring service Inspiration Education, William Guzzo, 26, says this year students are still daunted by the exam.

The service’s Facebook page has been inundated with students asking for help and advice, and Guzzo says these fears are compounded by the nerves that come with sitting an exam for the first time.

“Even though students will have a clearer idea of the format this time around, this new format is still causing stress to students because the format is still new — and there’s still a bit of mistrust and anxiety because of last year.”

The change of the exam’s format from straight mathematics equations to phrasing the questions in “real world” examples is what threw many students last year, said Guzzo.

“Many students find word questions unnerving because they have to balance the maths skills and processes in their head while also trying to cope with the literacy aspects from the word questions.

“This may particularly affect those who know English as a second language, have a learning disability like dyslexia or dyscalculia or just struggle with literacy in general.”

So Guzzo has come up with some helpful advice for students who will be sitting the exam today (Tuesday September 19) and Thursday (September 21).

“Although this is an extremely stressful situation for first-time exam takers to be in, this exam is entirely achievable with the right strategies and game plan.”

His top tips?

  1. Learn all the keywords or phrases inside out: This will help you identify the possible skills that you need to apply to the question. Some key phrases to learn are: in terms of, expression, value(s) of x, solve, show that, and investigate.
  2. Look for triggers and cues: For example, if you see a quadratic equation in the question, you must need to use a quadratic-based skill (expanding, factorising or solving). Showing working like this could get you an Achieved mark, or kickstart your thinking to solve the question.
  3. Beware of the pattern: Last year NZQA introduced a new type of question where students had to investigate a pattern. Make sure you are familiar with the difference between this type of question and the normal style of question. These types of question usually rely on playing around with numbers to prove a pattern – without any algebra needed. Otherwise, the answer could be in forming an algebraic equation that represents or shows this pattern by substituting numbers with letters.
  4. Learn the basic skills inside out: Learn them until they are almost automatic to you. This helps your brain to better juggle mathematical thinking with literacy skills to interpret and answer the questions.
  5. They are only going to test you on skills you already know: Try making a checklist of possible skills and then identify which ones apply as you go through each question.
  6. Use past exam questions: This applies particularly the 2015 and 2016 versions, which are easily available online. Go through each question and check your answers, thinking about what you did wrong and what you would do differently should a similar question arise in this exam.
  7. Attempt every question: In last year’s exams, for lots of the “super-hard” questions, students got an Achieved mark for just doing a simple skill, for example: the first expansion of a quadratic. Attempting each question and just trying to do something could be the difference between getting Not Achieved and Achieved.

Inspiration Education has more than 100 tutors who’ve helped hundreds of high school students throughout New Zealand understand course content and prepare for exams.

It was founded by Guzzo after his own experiences in the New Zealand education system inspired him to help other students achieve academically.

For further information, comment, high-res photos, or interviews, please contact William Guzzo directly on +64 27 844 8905 or at



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