Teaching A level mathematics

Written by: Michael Anderson | Published:
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If you’re new to the chalkface, the challenge of teaching A level maths can be a tough one. Michael Anderson offers a few pointers and looks at the changing curriculum requirements

Are you new to teaching A level mathematics? Whether you are an NQT, returning to work after a break or just new to teaching A level, the challenge can be daunting.

In an attempt to help we’ve put together a quick guide on how you can ace the teaching of your new A level classes both this year and in the years to come.

A level mathematics

It is likely that your A level class will contain a mixed ability group of students. Most schools have a policy regarding what GCSE attainment students require in order to take A level mathematics, so you could be forgiven for assuming that all of your students will be starting off with a similar level of understanding.

However, this is frequently not the case. One of the challenges for a teacher of A level mathematics is to ensure that all students can access the material covered and that any gaps in knowledge between different students doesn’t widen as the course progresses.

An early priority, therefore, is to assess your student’s prior understanding. Addressing misconceptions and holes in GCSE knowledge following a long summer will give you, and your students, a good idea of what is required in order to build strong foundations for the next stage of their mathematical journey.

Another priority is to develop your long-term plan: find out the dates of the external exams, when the school mock exams are held, and when parents’ evening will be. Plan when you will cover topics around these key milestones.

It can be hard to judge how long each topic will take to cover– sometimes this is nothing more than a best guess – but have a plan that maps out the entire year of content including enough time at the end of the school year for comprehensive revision and exam practice.

Your department will have a scheme of work. Be sure to familiarise yourself with the details and share as much information as you can with your students.

When I began my teaching career I was fortunate to have other, more experienced teachers alongside me. When planning a sequence of lessons I made sure that I was covering the same areas that parallel groups were covering, ensuring resources and teaching ideas could be shared more easily.

No-one expects you to be an expert instantly, so don’t be afraid to ask questions. The growing online support through social media can also be a great additional resource when you find yourself needing help.

Teaching strategies

Teaching strategies that work well with your lower school lessons will also be successful in post-16 classrooms – ideas such as using mini-whiteboards, good questioning techniques, encouraging discussion and using posters to explain understanding.

When the pressure is on, teachers can tend to resort to the A level teaching style that they themselves received when they were at school. These lessons typically follow a similar pattern: a problem is posed, examples are written on the board, copied down, and a series of similar questions are set for students to complete.

Malcolm Swan’s introduction to Improving Learning in Mathematics states that this “passive learning” style is not the most effective strategy. Instead try to incorporate a variety of the engaging activities found in the resource The Standards Unit: Improving Learning in Mathematics into your lessons.

When using these “active learning” methods in your classroom ensure that there is a clear purpose and the correct level of challenge. Avoid the overuse of one particular activity otherwise you run the risk of your lessons becoming “death-by-matching-activity”.

Technology

The new A level specification states that the “use of technology, in particular mathematical and statistical graphing tools and spreadsheets, must permeate the study of AS and A level mathematics”.

With an increasingly tech-savvy student body, now is the ideal opportunity to review your approach to technology use in your classroom. Do your students use graphics calculators? What software is installed onto school computers?

Many of the changes rely upon students being able to explain and interpret the results obtained when using technology, with less value being given to the ability to “number crunch”. Your role is to ensure students understand the mathematics they are learning, not just following a procedure that will gain marks in the exam without understanding what they are doing or why they are doing it.

Good use of technology can be a great aid to understanding mathematics. Students can use technology to plot graphs, find turning points, demonstrate transformations and more. Once confident in using technology a world of opportunity is opened up through the use of spreadsheets, dynamic geometry packages and graph plotters.

Changes on the horizon

The new A level, with first teaching from September 2017, covers much of the pure content of the existing qualifications, however there are some changes. One key difference is the introduction of a fixed, linear syllabus of pure mathematics, mechanics and statistics.

All students have to cover these topics, with a series of final examinations at the end of their studies. The changes provide the opportunity to highlight the links between topics that may not otherwise have been made clear, including those between binomial expansion and binomial probabilities, or tying kinematic equations to the ideas covered in calculus and proof.

Schools can still choose to enter students in AS examinations at the end of the first year, but the results will not count towards the final A level result. In statistics, students should be familiar with one or more large datasets as a context for their learning. Modules, including those on decision mathematics, no longer play a part in the mathematics A level.

Post-16 pathway changes

The new mathematics A level represents the biggest change since the turn of the millennium, made amid fears that students were ill-equipped for the mathematical demands of university degrees. Following those previous changes in 2000, the number of students taking mathematics and further mathematics dipped. This was followed by a period of sustained year-on-year increase in uptake, leading to the peak in the subject’s popularity in recent years.

Time will tell how the new changes will shape the uptake of A level mathematics, however it is likely that demand for post-16 mathematics in some form will remain high. As well as GCSE resit commitments, departments may also consider offering the Level 3 mathematics qualification Core Maths.

Aimed at students who have achieved a grade C in GCSE mathematics but who don’t intend to study mathematics at A level, Core Maths represents a more applied alternative in the post-16 mathematics landscape. The introduction of Core Maths has received a positive response so far from students and teachers in schools and colleges that have already embraced this new pathway.

An opportunity

Next year, Sir Adrian Smith will publish a review of mathematics study to 18 which will provide a good initial indicator of how the impending changes are going to perform. The new post-16 qualifications look to equip students with the mathematical skills they will require in their future studies and employment. Teachers will hopefully view the upcoming changes, in addition to the challenge of A level mathematics teaching, as an opportunity to develop – both personally and professionally – and recognise the rewards available when becoming a classroom practitioner at the forefront of this emerging new chapter in post-16 mathematics teaching.

  • Michael Anderson is mathematics specialist based at the National STEM Learning Centre in York. Over the past decade he has taught in mathematics departments in both Leeds and New Zealand. Visit www.stem.org.uk

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