How to Master Medication Calculation Math

For those of you who are in the application phase of nursing school or have yet to take your first medication calculation test, here it is in a nutshell—an assessment of your ability to correctly and accurately calculate and administer medication dosages safely to patients.
Topics covered are oral medications, parenteral medications, reconstituting, weight based calculations, IV calculations, heparin calculations, drop factor calculations, insulin dosages, and critical care calculations.
Basic algebra and conversion skills are needed, such as the ability to set up proportions, multiply, divide, converting pounds to kilograms, and other various units of measurement (kilograms, micrograms, ounces, etc.)

How is medication calculation worked into nursing school?

Every nursing school functions differently, and the requirements for passing may vary also. The following is how medical calculation math works in my nursing school:
Every semester you have three opportunities to pass. As you progress through the program, the amount of questions you may get wrong decreases. By your last semester, you are only allowed to get one wrong and need a score of 95 to pass. Medication calculation math is considered a requirement in the program, and if you don’t pass by your third attempt, you fail the course and have to repeat the course again.
As there is no grade given for medical calculation math, it is a requirement that you have to pass. It seems a little brutal, but the truth is, nurses need to be able to correctly calculate dosages, and be able to identify when a medication dose may be out of range or considered unsafe for that patient.

How can you prepare for medication calculation?

Everyone learns math differently. Maybe you just need to see it once and you are good to go. Or, maybe you need to review a little bit each day until it sinks in. However you learn, here are some tips to help prepare for your medication calculation test:
Tip #1: Do as many review questions as you can. Try and do a few that cover all of the topics that will be on the test. If your program doesn’t require a med math book, get a med math review book to do practice questions and read the steps on how to do the problems if you are having difficulty. Asking your professor for good resources for extra practice can also be helpful.
Tip #2: Read every question and understand what the question is asking you. Whether it be a question converting milliliters to milligrams or pounds to kilograms, it’s important you carefully understand what the question is asking so you know the correct steps to take.
Tip #3: Remember this phrase: “always leading, never trailing.” This is for when rounding numbers, whether the question says “round to the nearest tenth” or “round to the nearest whole number” you always want to write the number like this: 2, and not 2.0. This is done to help reduce medication errors and discrepancies.
Tip #4: During the test, do at least every problem twice to double check your answer. If you are on your last attempt to pass, there is nothing wrong in doing the problem a few times to check and make sure your answer is correct.
Tip #5: Do a practice test at home prior to the test. Some programs may have a time limit to complete anywhere from 10-20 questions, so you want to make sure you are able to do so in the allotted time.
Tip #6: Make sure you have a backup calculator. Most programs only allow a basic calculator, so be sure you have a spare the day of the test in case yours breaks.

Practice makes perfect

Don’t panic, it will be okay! Nurses have to do this every day and this is an important scope of practice for nursing. Your instructors are here to help you, so it’s important to ask questions and seek help prior to taking the test—don’t wait until the day before the test.
Medication calculation math may come easy for some, and yet difficult for others. You may fail the first time and have to take it again. The more you practice, the more likely you will pass on your first time and the more comfortable you will be with medical calculations.