Making maths work

Let’s face it, there are some learners that dislike maths. Unfortunately for them, unless they have the elusive grade C at GCSE then they have got to do it again in FE. Though I agree that engagement is important, particularly for those that have had negative experiences, I’m certainly not one for dumbing down – anymore (oh how I used to think of the ‘fun’ ahead of learning). My mantra ever since my eyes passed over ‘Why don’t students like school?’ by Dan Willingham is that ‘memory is the residue of thought’. Basically, we only remember what we think about. This in mind, gone from my classroom are the posters and leaflets, the working in large groups, and in are the paired activities, the focused discussion within pairs, the deliberate practise of new learning, and testing.

I was working with someone the other day whose GCSE maths class (these are FE students who failed in school) is going to be 4.5 hours in a single day next academic year. These learners are a combination of trainee hairdressers and chefs and sitting doing maths is a struggle, let alone doing it for 4.5 hours. “How can I focus them in a classroom for this long?” I was asked. Here are some of the suggestions I gave:


  1. Mixing and spacing the topics – The worst thing that this teacher could possibly do is to spend a whole 4.5 hour session on one, even two topics. Break it into shorter more manageable blasts on different topics and space the time between revisiting topics at around every 3 sessions (21 days). This way, the learners not only benefit from reinvigoration in the session, but also interleaving and distributed practice, both beneficial to long term retention.
  2. Regular testing – This doesn’t have to be about sitting and doing a written test. Get the learners using flash cards and creating their own quiz questions for one another. You might use technology to engage learners in the testing process (Kahoot, Socrative, Google Forms). If they’ve been seated for a while, try getting them to move to zones in the room as a response to multiple choice questions. Testing allows for gaps in knowledge to be identified and addressed, and it improves retrieval.
  3. ‘Why’ questioning – This is also known as elaborative interrogation and is an effective way at strengthening the learning.  Essentially,  pose some questions and ask learners to explain processes to each other, for example: Why is this the process for calculating…? Why are the brackets the first thing we calculate…?
  4. Practise – There will be times where learners need to practise. Build a routine into the session where learners have practice time. We are creatures of habit and knowing that this is part of the session will give a routine to the learning. Informing the learners of how important it is to practise in order to move from novice to expert (or at least grade D to C) is of great importance.


You’ll have noticed that I have a penchant for cognitive psychology of late. I will be sharing how I have tried to implement it in my own practice in the next post. If you have any ideas for our FE maths teacher, then feel free to share.


3 thoughts on “Making maths work

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