Classroom practice - Teaching maths in the real world

16th January 2015 at 00:00
Many students arrive at college already disenchanted and struggling with the subject. Our top tips will give them 20 reasons to love it

Teaching maths to a student who not only hates the subject but has also consistently failed at it is not an easy task. Yet it is one that lecturers like myself tackle every day in further education colleges. Our students often have low confidence and sometimes little desire to succeed.

Thankfully, there are many things you can do to make your job easier and ensure that students have a more enjoyable and successful experience this time around. Some of these tactics might prove useful for teachers of school-age pupils, too.

1 Seek support

Ask for and insist upon the support of the senior management team in ensuring that maths is a "whole-college" issue, supported across subjects and encouraged by all teachers rather than left to a single department.

2 Think like a student

If maths were a driving test, students would be eager to retake it because they would recognise its value. Be sure to make the subject appealing by spelling out the rewards.

3 Create a tactical timetable

Never timetable maths before 10am or after 3pm and never, ever last thing on a Friday.

4 Discuss issues as early as possible

Use the first lesson to discuss any mathematical issues with learners. Listen to them and use their feedback as an opportunity to develop relevant lessons.

5 Give learners ownership of progress

Divide up the syllabus for each maths qualification. Make sure the students know exactly what they have completed, what needs improving and what is still to be achieved. Share this with tutors and parents regularly.

6 Don't test too early

Only test when the student is ready - which is when they can pass at least two past papers easily - and then move them on to the next level of study. Constant failure will prevent engagement, and so will boredom.

7 Take your time

Don't start maths classes in the first two weeks of a new year. Let the class settle in as the maths staff review each student to ensure that they are grouped effectively.

8 Think small

Smaller classes carefully grouped by strengths are more effective than large groups of mixed ability.

9 Choose the right path

If a student's maths grade at GCSE was below a D, don't immediately enrol them on the GCSE at college. Instead, put them on a functional skills programme and only enter them for GCSE maths in the second year if their proposed career or course demands it.

10 Offer a choice of online or paper exams

Many students achieve higher marks on a paper exam than online. Computer-based tests can cause confusion with the number of open windows: calculators, question, rules, protractor - students often just click in frustration. Being able to see the task clearly makes a big difference.

11 Aim high

Enter students for the higher paper on offer for each level - many will achieve a better grade than if restricted to foundation. They will probably have been stuck in lower sets and made to feel stupid in the past. Take this opportunity to show some faith and inspire them.

12 Tap into their interests

Get a copy of the scheme of work for the student's main qualification (or in schools, their favourite subject). Discuss how to develop subject-relevant maths skills with the teaching team. These could include calculating prices for sand, bricks or shampoo; discount percentages for bulk-buying; VAT; equipment costs; conversion of units from metric to imperial; medicine doses of millilitres per kilogram of body weight for humans and animals; or tyre pressures, engine capacity and performance. The possibilities are endless.

13 Target assessments

Enlist the help of subject tutors in devising assessment pieces to test students' subject knowledge which incorporate maths that will be essential for their future employability.

14 Build relationships with feeder schools

Visit them, observe classes, understand the levels pupils are working at and prepare for the transition.

15 Group classes by main qualification

Construction and childcare are not compatible.

16 Set up drop-in sessions

Advertise additional classes by text and on Facebook, and make sure tutors encourage attendance. Put relevant material online to reinforce learning (simple short videos, for example), then track the downloads and reward all the students who made the effort to access them.

17 Run revision sessions during holidays

Write to, text or email parents so they are aware of these extra classes. Order pizzas and have a maths session that is relaxed but focused on student needs.

18 Create variety

Offer a range of activities around the classroom related to the topic being studied. Rotate the learners through the tasks so they can try everything.

19 Make theory real

For Pythagoras' theorem and trigonometry, go outside and measure building heights. Work out the best place to put a ladder so that it doesn't break a window or endanger the climber. Teach health and social care students about perimeter and area by relating the topics to access around a bed. For animal care students, refer to the amount of grazing area required for sheep, or for trainee decorators the amount of paint needed to cover a wall or room.

20 Don't expect miracles

But always stay positive.

Jayne Stigger is an FE manager in south-east England

What else?

Teachers' TV explores how to create an encouraging atmosphere for maths.

Use these light-hearted starter activities to generate mathematical discussion.

Enrich lessons with these number puzzles and games from Teachers' TV.


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