New year plans: Getting students back to school and ready for exams
January can be a tricky time for schools, as teachers and students alike face the challenge of getting back into good working habits after the Christmas break.
It’s a particularly significant period for year 11 and 13 classes. As well as dealing with the usual post-holiday lull, these students (and their teachers) have to think about mock examinations and preparing for their full A-level and GCSE maths exams later in the year.
We wanted to get an experienced teacher’s perspective on the unique demands of this time of year, so we spoke to James Davis, Associate Assistant Headteacher and Mathematics Teacher at Newstead Wood School.
Here’s what he had to say.
Firstly, James pointed out that it’s important for students to have some time to relax and switch off, which is why he doesn’t put too much pressure on his classes to work at home.
“I personally don’t encourage students to work over the Christmas holidays too much, because they’ve had a long term and I think it’s important for them to have a break,” he said.
“That said, we have year 13s who will be going into mocks straight away in January, so they probably will be doing some revision.”
One reason why it’s so important for students to have a Christmas break is so they feel ready to throw themselves into the new challenges coming their way in January.
For year 11 and year 13 classes, this will come in the form of mock exams. This is a good opportunity to assess what stage students are at in their learning and to get them into the exam mindset, James noted.
He also pointed out that mocks help teachers with data tracking and shine a light on the key areas of difficulty that students need to focus on in the coming months.
James’ school uses two sets of mocks: one in January that effectively provides a “worst-case scenario” for grades, followed by another in March or April that shows the effects of the work students have done in the intervening months.
“For some students, the mocks are actually about learning how not to work,” James said. “It also gives them their first practice with sitting long exam papers, and while they might not do as well as they could do in the mocks, it proves to be a useful learning process.”
On the subject of exam practice and preparation, James said this really begins in earnest at his school when students return in January.
However, regardless of the time of year, James always encourages his GCSE and A-level maths students to think in terms of exam-style questions, by making them the starting point of every lesson he teaches.
He does this by picking out segments of past papers and presenting them to the class alongside the mark scheme, so students are constantly gaining familiarity with the most common exam question formats and the criteria used to mark them.
“The sooner students can start looking at exam questions, the better,” James said. “I think that’s really important, because even if they understand the topics, they also need to know how they’re presented in exam questions.
“Little and often, over the course of two years, adds up to a lot of practice. There’s really nothing to stop you looking at exam questions from the word go.”
James’ approach to tackling exam questions ties in closely with how he uses calculators in the classroom. He has found that focusing on exam requirements naturally leads into discussions about the important part that calculators have to play in examinations, both as a tool for investigation and for checking answers.
“When students look at exam questions and see clear examples of where the calculator will help, they really start to see the importance of learning to use it and they become much more motivated,” James said.
As for the question of when is the best time for students to start exploring calculator use, James’ philosophy is similar to how he approaches exam questions: the sooner the better.
He noted that, initially, the calculator can serve as more of an investigative tool for topics like function transformations, but from January onwards, he focuses more heavily on how it can help students work efficiently in an exam scenario.
When it comes to the calculator options available to GCSE and A-level maths students, James spoke about how he has seen Casio’s fx-CG50 graphic calculator being used by students from year 10 onwards. The availability of loan sets in his school has given students the opportunity to experiment with the calculator before potentially purchasing their own.
“The loan sets have been really useful. We’ve kept ours in the school and used them in multiple classes, which has worked very well,” James said.
“That’s really powerful, because it gives you the option to run training in school with students and then they can decide whether they are going to buy their own. Students purchasing a graphic calculator in year 10 will have lots of time to learn it before they really need it at A-level.”
James was also keen to address the common misconception that graphic calculators are banned at GCSE level. Not only is the fx-CG50 permitted for these students, but it can give them a useful head start if they will be progressing to A-level maths, providing access to key features such as equation mode, graphing functionality and the SolveN tool.
If you’re interested in learning more about loan sets for your school, just contact us.
You can also get to know the fx-CG50 by booking a place on a free training session, which will be led by an expert with in-depth knowledge of the calculator’s capabilities.