Positive pressure

30th November 2007 at 00:00
Putting students to the test may motivate them to work hard and get good grades. Or put them off totally, says Clare Parsons.Ages 16-18

As Christmas approaches fast, AS maths students in many schools and colleges are gearing up for some serious revision, instead of winding down for a festive break.

In many institutions, it has become standard practice to enter students for the exam in module C1 in January, giving them a "first shot" at a real level 3 maths exam.

However, some schools and colleges have resisted entering any AS students for exams so early, thus preserving teaching time, minimising disruption, and allowing students to build up confidence in mathematical skills gradually.

Above all, it means a few months off the examination treadmill for these over-examined 16-year-olds. (Recent research from the University of Manchester found that A-level exam pressure put many students off studying maths at university.) These students sit C1 after they have completed C2 in May, by which time they should easily obtain a good grade.

Which is the right approach? Unfortunately, decisions often have to be made on practicalities rather than on educational considerations. In my college last year we followed the lead of other subjects and entered students for a module in January, mainly because we didn't want them neglecting their maths because they weren't taking a real exam in it.

The experience helped students make the transition from GCSE to AS, provided exam practice, focused their efforts, and made them learn work covered so far. Further, when the results came out in March, students started to believe teachers' assessments.

However, the downside was that some struggling students focused most of their efforts on this one exam, rested up in late January, and then went on to fail in the summer. They were simply unable to cope with two more modules in May.

So this year our strategy is to enter all our students for two modules - C1 and S1 - in January.

This will motivate this years' students to work harder than their predecessors, and give them time to get to grips with C2 before the summer. Well, that's the theory.

However, even if it produces improved results, it is still regrettable that the Christmas break will be dominated by exam revision, when students could be relaxing with light reading from the departmental book list and enjoying maths for its own sake.

Clare Parsons is head of maths at Sir George Monoux Sixth Form College in east London.


Website: Problem Pictures, pound;84 for site licence from www.badseypublications.co.uk.

A vast range of photographs with a mathematical content picked out as the basis for investigation and problem-solving.

Website: www.defencedynamics. mod.uk. Very real, free applications of maths developed into high quality PowerPoints, videos, worksheets and differentiated lesson ideas, in the fields of locus (mountain rescue), reasoning and proof (2005 stricken Russian submarine), graphical interpretation (meteorology), and trig ratiosarea (search and rescue).

- Book: Questions and Prompts for Mathematical Thinking, pound;9 from www.atm.org.uk. Stimulating, flexible teacher resource to improve quality of thinking used in ordinary classrooms.

Book: The Edge of the Universe: Celebrating Ten Years of Math Horizons ed D Haunsperger and S Kennedy (Mathematical Association of America pound;30). An eclectic range of mathematical articles that will whet the appetite for further study of mathematics.

Website: www.iwbmaths.co.uk has a fabulous range of free interactive electronic resources, including daily and weekly pages. One of the few sites featuring post-GCSE enrichment material that's accessible to post-GCSE pupils.

Book: Mathematical Puzzling by Tony Gardner. Dover Publications, pound;8.95. Working book for pupils, or resource for teachers: a fun book developing genuine problem-solving ability in post-GCSE pupils or earlier.

Jennie Golding is head of maths at Woodroffe School and a Dorset Advanced Skills Teacher.

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