GCSE Mathematics: A mature student’s barrier to thinking! #UKEdchat #Edchat

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Mathematic Operations

I find myself reflecting upon my experiences teaching GCSE Mathematics to mature students at an FE college since the year of 2012. Many of these students are returning to study to develop a career for themselves and gain a more positive future both independently, and financially. Many have left school with few qualifications and GCSE Mathematics is generally required to gain entry to Access or Foundation study courses (which could fuel the issue more), which themselves are entry to Higher Education courses such as degrees. Although, as fantastic it may be that these people are wanting to better themselves and move forward with their lives, I still find myself examining the structure and delivery of such a course as GCSE Mathematics in Further Education.

GCSE Mathematics is a qualification generally associated with high school level study. Students can be working towards a GCSE in mathematics for 2 or 3 academic years (depending on school) with around 4-6 hours worth of maths specific tuition each week (also depending on school). My eldest daughter at the time of writing this essay currently has 4 hours per week tuition on the subject. However, when compared to a mature student returning to study, returning students only get around 2-3 hours per week and have to complete the course within 1 academic year compared to high school students. This can mean a difference of 390 hours less for the mature student based on the worse-case scenario (Average academic year lasting 39 weeks). That would mean high school students gain an extra 600 percent more mathematics tuition compared to returning mature students. This itself should start to ring alarm bells. The pressure on mature students to cover such a broad volume of mathematical topics in such a short period of time, yet still retain a grasp and understanding beyond course completion is quite frankly, humourous. I find from my experience of teaching this subject to mature students, the course is seen as a stepping stone and not a skill for life. Many students have no aspirations to gain higher than a grade C (current pass mark) and therefore do not put in more effort to learn this valuable life-long-skill. I have witnessed tutor remarks such as, ‘You only need a C to pass so don’t push yourself‘, or ‘As soon as you have got it, you can forget it because you will have it for life‘. The later really confuses me when I hear it because with this attitude how on earth can one establish a skill ‘for life‘? Surely, what tutors and students are referring to here is a certificate and not the skill of numbers…

Crammed courses reduce student thinking time…

Crammed Course

Crammed Course

I find the course somewhat crammed together to get as many mature students to a pass mark rather than develop a true understanding of mathematics. Mathematics is a vital skill in both personal and working life, and many students come to realise this when it is too late. Yes, colleges have to maintain their ‘retention ratings’ (pass mark statistics) but at what cost… putting students into study or working environments without a true grasp for the numbers? The course is so crammed together that each lesson seems like a topical rush. Each week a completely different topic could be studied without giving students time to absorb, and think about the concepts. Mature students generally have many other factors such as family life, working, and paying the bills to fill their time (Osborne et al, 2004) yet it would appear to me that a major focus for returning students is based on self-study. Yes, promoting the idea of thinking for yourself is a great concept and I do find it a valued goal for teaching but this alone should not be a means to an end. We must help our mature students to refine their thinking by taking the appropriate time to absorb and understand the mathematical logic. However, because the course is so crammed together I find tutors struggling to allow the students to think for themselves during sessions. The average tutor only allows a student 1 second to respond before moving on (Zimmer, 2015) and I have lost count of how many times I have heard students stating they don’t get it to which, the tutor’s response is, ‘you will have to have a look at home because I need to move on‘. We should ideally be giving our students more time to think about the concepts within the session to attain appropriate responses potentially confirming their thinking and understanding before we send them home to self-study in the minefield we call ‘the web‘. Just pausing that little bit longer (even just 5 seconds) while placing an expectant look on your (tutor’s) face could give our students that much-needed thinking time in-order to grasp the concept (Zimmer, 2015).

Assuming self-study skills…

Self Study

Self Study

The idea that because you are a mature student means you have the ability to self-study is not true. Many mature students I have had the pleasure of dealing with over the years have demonstrated that leaving school with little qualifications generally means a lack of self-study, or lack of ability to study in general. Many students have been out of education for many years and to throw them in the deep end by attempting to develop that core understanding at home, without the required thinking time during sessions has puzzled me. We all know that if we ask students to research something at home to develop a core understanding, our time can easily be stolen from us by the web itself. Especially when the advice is ‘go on YouTube to watch instructional videos‘, knowing that YouTube itself provides many with great distractions that eat away at our time. I say, ‘YouTube is a complete theft of our time‘ and we should use our online learning environments such as Moodle or Blackboard to restrict our students’ concentration to the core subject and understandings (deep thinking you might say). Although, many tutors cringe when I mention this because of the workload involved. My argument is… organise the environment that you wish your students to be able to study within first to promote more depth of thinking and analysis.

Lack of appropriate note taking… use of feedback… Metacognitive Questioning…

Within ALL my groups I have been involved in I have witnessed poor note-taking skills. Many concentrate on getting their heads around the topic without any insight as to how they will ever remember the step by step process once they leave the session. I find myself actively promoting the use of notebooks within the classes and I have also advised other tutors to place a large focus on note-taking by having them instruct the students to purchase a specific notebook just for mathematics. The way in which tutor presentational resources are structured can make a huge difference. Making sure the topic title is visible on all your slides, numbering your slides or exercise examples really helps the students to try organise their own note-taking abilities. So often I look through students’ notebooks to find sums scattered everywhere with no real clear avenue for understanding what goes with each topic, or more to the point, a lack of stepped workings (step by step examples for them to self-study). I have also noticed that certain types of feedback from the tutor can make a difference to learning the topic and improving student skills. (I have written about feedback in more depth here: Feedback: Educational Environment). By examining your students’ notebooks tutors can see if they stand a chance of good self-study or whether they need to attend academic support sessions to improve upon their note-taking abilities. We can promote our students’ understanding of their studies by asking metacognitive questions (questions that get students to think about their thinking/learning):

Metacognitive Questioning

Do I have all the information? (Actually making some notes)

What are the key elements of the information or task? (A little more notational depth on important elements)

Can I put this information into my own words? (Really important for true understanding)

Can I organise this information more effectively? (Note-taking subheadings supported by teacher material and worked examples providing steps)

These type of questions can allow students to begin thinking about how they are going to tackle the topic when the session is over. We can begin to train our students to become aware of their own thinking to promote better self-study, and general skill development. This ability can be carried over to other subjects such as English, Sciences and others.

Clearly, after reading this essay you may be thinking… how on earth can we actually fix this issue then? Do we extend the mature GCSE Mathematics course or do we reduce the material requirements? To be honest, I feel covering the points made above is the first step to take… and I say this because if we just extended the course duration (which is probably not viable) we would still be left with a lack of self-study ability and less thinking time without actively promoting those skill development techniques within our engaging sessions.

Additional Reading:

Thinking Hard… Practical Solutions for the Classroom – Alex Quigley – Hunting English


Osbourne, M,. A, Marks,. & E, Turner,. (2004). Becoming a mature student: How adult applicants weigh the advantages and disadvantages of higher education. Higher Education – Kluwer Academic Publishers. 48, pp 291-315. Accessed: 01-03-2016. Available: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Michael_Osborne6/publication/226623306_Becoming_a_mature_student_How_adult_appplicants_weigh_the_advantages_and_disadvantages_of_higher_education/links/558559bd08ae71f6ba8c97bf.pdf

Zimmer, K,. (2015). Enhancing Interactions With Children With Autism Through Storybook Reading: A Caregivers Guide. Young Exceptional Children. doi:10.1177/1096250615593327 Accessed: 01-03-2016. Available: http://yec.sagepub.com/content/early/2015/07/15/1096250615593327.extract

What is your opinion?