Variety is the spice of maths: Engaging mastery approaches, Stamford College CfEM

“The secret of happiness is variety, but the secret of variety, like the secret of all spices, is knowing when to use it.”

Daniel Gilbert, US psychologist

Identifying a major issue – In the first cycle of action research between November resits and the Christmas holidays, the action research group led by Margaret Lovick at Stamford College identified areas students consistently did poorly in in assessments. Analysis indicated a number of common areas that students found particularly tricky: percentages, fractions and decimals.

The first intervention, out of class – CfEM funding was therefore used for Maths Study Support Mentors (MSSMs) to do interventions both within and out of class that focus on these tricky areas. Individuals attending MSSM sessions were given an additional diagnostic tool where they rate their own perceived ability on each area from easy to very hard, which is used to identify gaps and further target support. After several weeks of MSSM interventions, the practitioner-researchers gathered feedback on what was working and next steps, a survey of 59 learners and follow-up interviews were conducted. Then a focus group of lecturers was convened to discuss the student feedback.

Results from the first intervention – The lecturers were particularly interested to see that, in general, students had responded well to the MSSM intervention in terms of progress towards mastering target areas, yet their confidence hadn’t risen in these areas, yet. So, the lecturers decided they needed to do more modelling, use representations and other teaching techniques to give more, different and engaging learning experiences (rather than repeating lesson content and style).

Our innovative approach was very well received by the students. Lecturers and MSSMs are now able to ‘succinctly’/micro target areas in a student’s journey to knowledge and skills in solving particular Maths’ question. For example, we identified that most students avoided conversion of fractions to decimals in none-calculator questions not because they did not understand the concept, nor because they didn’t think that knowledge and skill is important, nor that they didn’t know that division was the necessary approach. Rather, it was the next steps that many struggled with. Almost half of the students knew that the denominator needed to be outside and the numerator inside of the bus-stop method. However, nearly all the students did not know what to do next, and therefore could not solve the conversion question. Application of varied teaching and learning methods – for example, use of place values templates for decimal numbers, tiles and bar modelling – is giving students the space they need to understand why we have the ‘0.’ in the conversion of a fraction number into a decimal number.

Lecturers also found that students who had worked with MSSMs were more engaged than they had previously in lessons. This was thought to be because MSSMs made maths more accessible to more learners, therefore making it more inclusive. They used a much wider range of tools, resources, techniques for learning than previously used and typically progressed through the Concrete – Pictorial – Abstract process, only moving on when learners and MSSMs felt that they were fully ready.

The second intervention and results, inside classrooms –  When lecturers started sharing with each other some of the successful approaches used by the MSSM in the classroom, Margaret concluded that learners gained confidence from trying things in different ways, and that inclusion is improved by more students being enabled to attempt the maths. Also, of interest is that it took 3-4 weeks before teachers and students were confident enough to use bar modelling, and algebra tiles they took to much quicker. Further, lecturers observed that students with SEN seemed more engaged and emotionally happier in their lessons, which was because of the variation in teaching and learning now used: Students didn’t get bored because the topics, tasks and approaches were varied.

Share this article: