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Mathagony Aunt

Q) I am in charge of the GCSE maths retake group in my school. I would love a magic formula for pupils who gain grade D in the summer to get a C in January.

A) Understanding why they failed helps pupils put it into perspective and remove the self-blame that can often lead to the prophecy: "I can't make a C" - so they don't. For instance, due to absence or emotional problems they may have missed out on the essential building blocks of certain concepts.

Some fail due to exam nerves: recommend these students to seek advice from a doctor. I have had students who have been prescribed herbal remedies to take for six weeks before the exam and they have gained a B instead of a C.

Administer the exam they took so that individual problems can be identified and listed to give them targets and help build an individual revision programme. For example, in probability, a student may not be able to use tree diagrams because they don't understand how to do fractions.

One piece of "magic" is to choose a problem topic which you are a super whiz at teaching. This makes them go "wow!" and also makes them feel that they aren't "stupid" after all and perhaps that goal is not beyond them.

Some students may be failing because they are not giving the answer in the required format. On a revision course I had a young lad who lost 10 per cent of his marks over a whole paper simply because he failed to round numbers as required, write in the correct units, cancel fractions, and so forth. This is the difference between D and C grade.

Another part of the "magic formula" is to persuade them they have to practise enough to ensure they are confident when tackling questions. Kevin Pankurst, head of maths in Pilton Community College, Devon, came up with a great idea for revision practice. Teachers chopped up past exam papers, pasting a variety of questions onto pieces of A5 card. These were put into sets of 10 labelled A to G. Students worked through individual cards and when the questions were completely correct the teacher would sign the card and enter the fact on a table so that the amount of revision could be tracked and those who weren't doing any could be identified and action taken.

This had the effect of familiarising students with the style and content of the paper without the daunting prospect of having to attempt a whole paper, which can lower self-confidence and seem too daunting.

Jill Robertson from Exeter College sets team quizzes in which students have to focus on the method as well as the solution. This stimulates discussion about the maths. She also sets two homework papers a week with exam-style questions - again this is about familiarisation and small successes.

The "magic formula" is to help students gain confidence in their own abilities and through this encourage them to undertake the study necessary to move to grade C.

Q) I am an NQT and teach maths in an 11-16 comprehensive. My A-level maths was taken a number of years ago. The worst group is Year 10 set 3. The last straw was when one pupil loudly asked if I had a maths degree. I now ask myself if I should be teaching at this level without one. I feel nervous and afraid of teaching something incorrectly.

A) First I suggest you talk to your head of maths about your relationship with the group. Students will try to deliberately knock new staff down.

Have a couple of good testing questions up your sleeve that you are very sure about so you can create a discussion with them and feel in charge.

Acquiring the knowledge to teach maths takes time. There can be many ways to teach a topic and each learner has a different learning style. The ability to offer flexibility comes from understanding the subject matter.

You are right that a maths degree would give you the grounding and confidence in that flexibility.

I suggest you give yourself this year to settle in as the NQT year is a hard one. Lessons have to be well prepared: go through each question you set to make sure you understand how to work it out and mistakes that might be made. This is even more important at the higher level.

In the second year, you will have been through the scheme of work once already. I suggest you consider taking a part-time degree in maths, perhaps through the Open University; there are many teachers who take this route.

It will take a number of years but is well worth it, with some really exciting topics available. This would also widen your choice of schools as you would then also have the knowledge to teach students up to 18 years.

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