CfEM blog: How do students feel about retaking GCSE Maths?

Blog by Eddie Playfair, Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges (AoC), for the Centres for Excellence in Maths (CfEM) programme.

Our project is based on the assumption that achieving a grade 4 in GCSE Maths is of great benefit to students; supporting their progression and improving their opportunities. But what do the students themselves have to say about their experience of GCSE maths at college?

As our meetings have taken us to different colleges across the country, we have also been listening to students’ views about their experience of maths; before and after starting at college.

At many of the Centres for Excellence in Maths, we were able to speak to groups of students and get their feedback. Most of these students were following vocational programmes and a few were A Level students.

Most students understood why maths was important for progression and many vocational students were able to explain how mathematical skills related to their vocational area. For example, plumbing students spoke about the importance of measurement and scale as well as flow rates. Hair and beauty students referred to mixing colours and handling money and childhood studies students could explain about the need to understand ratios and measure dosages for medication. Performing arts students sometimes found it harder to relate the maths they did to their course.

When we asked students why they thought they needed to retake maths, it was striking how many used the language of failure. “Because I failed it at school” was by far the most common response and their GCSE grades were very seldom expressed in terms of a journey towards a higher grade. It seems that the idea of the grade 4/3 boundary being ‘pass/fail’ is strongly established.

Students were usually able to tell us which aspects of maths they enjoyed or found most interesting and which they found difficult or less interesting. These varied, but it was unusual for anyone to hate everything about maths. However, many expressed a lack of confidence in some topics and spoke in terms of just not being able to “get it”, however hard they tried. A number of students also spoke about the language and style of exam questions being a barrier to achievement.

We also asked students what they found most helpful about how maths is taught and how their college experience differed from school. Students invariably spoke about how supportive and encouraging their college teachers are; understanding where they are and not judging them, while really wanting them to learn and to succeed. Time after time, students spoke about teachers being patient, putting themselves out and explaining things clearly and carefully several times and in many different ways. A recurrent theme was the importance of individual help and attention and some students referred to the smaller group sizes and better student motivation in their college classes.

Some students valued online materials, maths apps, flipped learning, homework tasks and the use of practice questions. Many felt they learned a lot from working together with other students. A number were very honest about not doing any work outside of lessons whilst valuing what they did in class.

Generally, most students had a positive view of their chances of improvement and were not excessively anxious about failure although many recognised that doing badly could affect their chances of progressing and achieving their career aims. A few were very negative about their chances and saw no prospect of improvement.

The Centres for Excellence in Maths Project needs to be informed by the student experience and to listen to the student voice. Using structured interviews and other techniques, we can learn a great deal from students about their assumptions and attitudes, the challenges they face and the effectiveness of our interventions. On a larger scale, we will also aim to capture student feedback systematically through on-line surveys and we aim to establish a representative student panel of 12-20 students in each of the Centres.

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