How to Pass Calculus (Even if You’ve Never Studied for Math)

Updated: Jul 7


8 Tips for how to pass Calculus from a Calculus teacher/tutor and her successful students


Handing back the first graded Calculus test, a student’s posture slouched. His stomach dropped seeing his grade.


He never failed a math test in his life. He never had to study for math even! He couldn’t focus the rest of class, daydreaming about graduation that spring and worrying how this class might affect his future.

Calculus can be overwhelming! (Photo by Dmitry Ratushny)

Who Else Wants to Pass Calculus?


You’ve excelled in math in previous years, but Calculus challenges you. You put in the time to do your assignments, but your test scores don’t match your ability.


Don’t give up hope; you can still understand and excel in Calculus! Here are some suggestions for improving your Calculus grade, from former students and me (a former teacher and current online Calculus tutor).



How to Pass Calculus:


1. Go back and review Algebra. Many Calculus students soon realize that they make more Algebra mistakes on tests than Calculus mistakes. Avoid these mistakes.


2. Actively participate in class. Write down all of the notes and problems solved during class even if you don’t know how to solve them right away. Go back to these problems later and see if you understand them.


3. Complete all assignments, on time and to the best of your ability. One student said, “If I could [take Calculus] over, I would complete all assignments. Homework is your key to success.”


4. Ask questions—trust me, you’re not the only person who got the problem wrong! As one student reflects, “I should’ve asked more questions…on anything and everything that was even slightly confusing. Never stop asking questions even if they seem stupid because a solid understanding is worth it.”


5. Review daily: “Calculus was one of my most difficult classes because I needed to practice the concepts every day in order to understand them. Go back over notes and problems—you’ll learn something you didn’t pick up before.” Another student learned this the hard way: “What does NOT work is not practicing problems and then glancing over notes the class before a test.”


Put aside one hour in your calendar each weekday to complete the homework. Study with any extra time. Cycle back to older content if you’re comfortable with the current topics.


For example, if you’re studying relative extrema, go back and review derivative rules so they stay fresh in your mind. Re-do missed problems in previous assignments, study guides, and tests. I created a video to further explain how to study math.



6. Can you fill in a multiple representations chart on the topic? See my video analyzing definite integrals or an example of the chart below. I try to look at all topics from a Graphical, Numerical, Analytical, and Written perspective.

If you know how the different perspectives relate, you have a clear understanding of the topic.



7. Practice old AP® questions. Some students have no issues completing the homework, but the tests seem much more difficult. If you find this to be the case, try going through previous, released AP® Calculus questions on the topic. Search the internet for “AP Calculus questions on_____.” Try to solve past free response questions too.


Read my post on how to pass the AP® Calculus exam.



8. Get extra help if you need it. Find a study group, tutor, or online resources such as Paul’s Online Math Notes. An AP® Calculus review book will help if you need topic by topic review. If you have specific questions or problems you want to go over, a tutor may be a better option.


Check out these tips for hiring the most effective Calculus tutor, and consider the benefits of learning Calculus online.


If you have tried one or more of these tips, please comment below how they worked for you. Also, let us know if you have other suggestions to better understand Calculus.



Have a Calculus Grade You Can Be Proud Of


Remember the student from the beginning who failed his first Calculus test? His advice is, “Never give up and stop doubting yourself. You’re smarter and stronger than you think. One grade doesn’t define you.”


The failing grade fueled him to learn how to study for a math test. From then on, he stormed into class each day asking me to check the homework before even taking a seat. He began to take pride in his work. And he started passing Calculus…by a lot. By the second semester, he earned A’s and B’s on every test.


Head high, shoulders back, and a puffed chest, he waltzed across the stage to accept his diploma. His wide grin forced his eyes to squint as he reflected the past year’s obstacles. He felt grateful for the challenge Calculus brought him. Now, he was confident to take on any college math course.


Follow these tips and you can have a similar success story!

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