Most students I’ve worked with try to avoid math because they are not confident when it comes to their general math and algebra skills. They tell me that they’re “just bad at math.” So the only time that they usually study the dosage calculations are right before dosage calculation exam 🙂 And of course, if you’re a busy nursing student, that usually means you don’t have time to study for that dosage calculation exam until the night before! And then you’re stressed out, scared you’re going to fail, and exhausted because you didn’t get enough sleep. Obviously, that’s not the best plan for improving your dosage calculation skills.
My biggest “secret” to dosage calculations is really not a secret at all! It is to practice a little bit at a time, but to practice very frequently. For example, start doing 2 dosage calculations every single day. Buy a spiral notebook or composition book, and do nothing but dosage calculations in it. Your school probably suggests a med math book that you can use to find practice problems, but you can also do a quick Google search and find plenty of free practice questions online.
Do one problem per page. Make your best attempt at solving it, then check your answer. If it’s wrong, make sure you take time to go through and find what you did wrong. For example, did you set up the equation the wrong way? Did you mix up your units? Or did you just make a multiplication mistake? Or do you only make mistakes on IV dosages? Even experts make mistakes sometimes, but if you start seeing a pattern of the kind of mistake you keep making, then you know what you need to practice more of.
It’s also helpful to keep track of your progress so you don’t get discouraged. You are probably going to get a lot of calculations wrong at first! So make a green mark for each page that you get a right answer the first time, and a red mark for each question you got wrong. Then, over time, you will be encouraged to start seeing that your notebook is gradually getting more “green” pages than “red” pages! If you’re really into organizing (and not everybody is), then you might also want to come up with a color or symbol system to mark what kind of mistake you made on each page, too. That can sometimes help you to visually see patterns in your errors more easily, but it’s certainly not required.
Obviously, you’ll probably miss a day here or there when practicing. Don’t beat yourself up for not being perfect, but don’t let too many days go by! Just get back to it and start doing 2 problems a day again. If you do that everyday for a month, you’ll have finished at least 60 practice questions! And you’ll probably feel a lot more comfortable with your dosage calculation skills than you do now.
It can also be a good idea to set aside a little extra time to study your dosage calculations 2-4 times per month. This way you can go into a little extra depth and practice a few extra problems. I’m talking like an extra hour or two, but not all day!
There’s two primary types of problems that nursing students have with dosage calculations: 1) need to review basic math and algebra skills (i.e. order of operations, solving for x, etc), or 2) math skills are fine, but need to get used to figuring out how to set-up the math problems for dosage calculations. For the first type of problem, it is often helpful to get some math tutoring. A lot of schools have a math lab or peer tutoring available for their students, which can be very helpful if you are in this situation. Another option is to consider retaking a basic math/algebra class through your school.
The second type of math problem will be solved with….(you guessed it!)…practice 🙂 The more you do it, the more you start to recognize how the information in the medical order gets turned into an algebra problem, and you will start to see patterns. Some students also find it helpful to learn a new method of dosage calculations, such as the formula method, the ratio method, or the unit analysis method (aka “railroad tracks”).
There really is no “quick fix” to becoming an expert at dosage calculations, so practicing a little bit everyday really is the best way. Plus it’s a lot easier and waaay more effective than just trying to cram dosage calculations in the night before an exam! And the better you get at dosage calculations, the quicker you will start thinking like a nurse.