Science 31/10/2018

Decimal places and significant figures


In the GCSE exams for any of the sciences you could be asked to write an answer to a certain number of decimal places (d.p.) or significant figures (s.f.). It’s important to get this right, to avoid losing marks. The ideas are straightforward, but the details can be tricky. Just read this short guide, do plenty of practice questions and it’ll become second nature. 🙂

Decimal places

The method for rounding a number is as follows:

Example 1

Take the number 7.83478.

To round this number to 2 d.p. underline the second digit after the decimal point: the ‘3’. The next digit to its right (the ‘4’) is the ‘rounder decider’. As this is less than 5 the previous digit remains the same. All the following digits are discarded, to give an answer of 7.83.

To round the number to 3 d.p. underline the third digit after the decimal point: the ‘4’. The next digit to its right (the ‘7’) is the ‘rounder decider’. This time, as ‘7’ is greater than 5, you round the previous digit up by 1, to give an answer of 7.835.

Example 2

Take the number 0.695.

To round this to 2 d.p. underline the digit 9. The digit 5 is the ‘rounder decider’. That means decides that 9 needs to be rounded up by 1 to the number 10. As this is a 2-digit number, the 0.69 is therefore rounded up to the final answer of 0.70.

Don’t forget the last zero! The answer is 0.70 not just 0.7. It’s easy to forget to add the zero, but if you do forget, your answer will only be to 1 d.p. and you will lose marks.


Significant figures

Here are the golden rules that you must learn and apply (by practising!)

  1. All non-zero digits are significant.
  1. Zeros sandwiched between non-zero digits are significant.
  1. Zeros that come before all non-zero digits are not significant.
  1. Zeros after non-zero digits within a number without decimals are not significant.
  2. Zeros after non-zero digits within a number with decimals are significant.


Rounding significant figures

If you’re asked in the exam to round a number to a specified number of significant figures, do the following:

This rounding method is exactly the same as that used for decimal places. EXCEPT that there’s an extra rule for significant figures: fill any gaps between the last significant figure and a subsequent decimal place with zeros!

This is best explained with an example. The following numbers are rounded to 2 s.f.




Katie Ross

Download PDF

School closures – distance learning offer

We are providing FREE access to schools for the remainder of the current school year,
for confirmed orders through to June 2021 and June 2022.

Easy for teachers, effective for students

  • High quality learning videos Concise tutorials aligned precisely to the specification.
  • Automatic marking Objective data on student engagement and progress.
  • Fast, efficient administration Student access immediately an order is approved.
  • Established, robust platform Reliable remote access. Rapid customer support.
  • Fully comprehensive solution Everything you need for Key Stage 4 distance learning.

The customer support is fantastic, so administering several hundred student accounts is a breeze.