My New Approach to Teaching Maths A Level

In previous years while my classes have done pretty well in Year 12 and 13 the workload for me has been unsustainably high. I have tried to figure out a way of reducing workload whilst keeping levels of pupil engagement and results high.

This was partly prompted by the new A level. It was decided that we would plan the new A level pretty much from scratch and I thought as I was required to plan all over again I might as well give some serious thought to how I was going to teach the new course.

I decided to try something new. Ordinarily I split each topic up and teach one or two things in each lesson over the 1 or 2 weeks the topic lasts for. This year for every topic I’ve taught the entire topic within the first lesson or 2. I then set them a mixture of exam questions, tarsias, risps and extension tasks for the remainder of the time set aside for the topic (or until I think we’ve spent long enough on the topic). During this time I pick up any misconceptions or bits and pieces that pupils have not understood. As I’m not doing any whole class teaching during this time I find myself with more capacity to work individually with some of the weaker and less confident pupils. In these lessons some of them work in groups, some of them prefer to work on their own or in a pair. Unless a pair or group has a very poor dynamic I let them crack on with it however they see fit.

For each topic I set them somewhere between 30 and 50 exam questions for homework. I mark 6-10 of these questions in detail and when I have done so I post the mark schemes online. For most topics I also give them an end of topic test that is between 40-120 minutes depending on how big the topic is.

For the first topic the homework mark and the end of topic test mark were both less than 50%. Since that inauspicious beginning the pupils are now averaging 70% with the weakest generally being 50%+ and full of silly mistakes rather than conceptual misunderstandings.

All the classes in Year 12 are mixed ability and were deliberately made as close to each other in terms of GCSE results as possible. In the test every class sat, on which the current grade on their winter term report were based, my class outscored the other classes by over 10%.

I have also informed the class of times I am available to help them outside of lesson time. Some of the weaker students have been frequent visitors before school, at lunchtimes or after school. Generally they want help with a specific question or 3. Mostly they want about 10 minutes of my time in any given time slot. This is a significant change from previous years where some students have wanted a great deal of my time outside of lesson time and “intervention” has been enormously time consuming.

In previous years it has taken a significant length of time for several pupils to realise that they were going to have to work to do well at A level. The kind of pupils who did well at GCSE without trying. There were always a few pupils who under performed because they never got that particular message. This year all but 2 either worked hard from the start or started working hard after the marks from the first homework and end of topic test were poor. I’d hoped that would be the case when I made the first homework and test difficult.

A downside of teaching a whole topic in a lesson or two is that when pupils are absent catching them up is more problematic. However I have found that what might take 2 hours with a whole class takes a lot less time to go through with an individual. Generally pupils find out what they have missed and teach themselves using the textbook, online resources or the materials I have put on the schools VLR for them. I get them to come outside of lesson time so I can ensure they have picked up what they missed and address any issues they might have with a topic.

Another downside of teaching in this way is that in a quarter of lessons there is a lot of teacher talk. A lot more than I’m used to, a lot more than they are used to and certainly a lot more than observers are used to seeing. This is probably why the initial results were poor. It is almost certainly why it is being suggested that I introduce more student led activities and group work into my lessons.

I would say that this class is comparable in ability with my previous Year 12 classes. I would say that at the start of the year their work ethic was comparable with my previous Year 12 classes. They are currently doing far better than any of the Year 12 classes I have taught in recent years.

This is partly because most of them have really bought into what I’ve told them about the value of hard work and practice. It’s partly because going through an entire topic quickly allows me more time to give them a real mixture of questions and that means more time when they have to figure out what type of question they are answering, which skills and knowledge from the unit they need to use etc but I think it’s mostly because they decided at a relatively early stage that I might just know what I’m on about when it comes to doing well in Maths exams. This has come as a pleasant surprise.


2 thoughts on “My New Approach to Teaching Maths A Level

  1. Chester Draws

    This has been my experience too, but only with older students. Our school finishes the higher level Calculus course three-quarters of the way through the year, because that allows us to revise properly, catching all the missed or misunderstood parts. Going faster has led to better results, as they have to concentrate right from the start of the year.

    I think it is because the main issue for most students is not using a technique or concept, but knowing which one to use. So practice needs to be largely about deciding when to use what, not how to use. Giving a bunch of mixed exam questions will do that, although in our system I would not do that as it uses up too many of what they will need to later study (I realise some areas have such large exam banks that this is not an issue). It is why I avoid text books that have endless “practice this technique” pages.

    Don’t succumb to the requests of others to add group work etc in the early couple of lessons. That is the key time that students need to be getting it into their own heads. I just fob them off with (false) promises that I will do group work later.


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