• Charlie’s Angles

Maths competitions – use them to motivate all students, not just the ‘brightest’

An article from our Director, Charlie Stripp

  • Published: 06/11/2018

There are excellent maths challenge competitions available for all phases of education in the UK.

For primary school students, the Primary Maths Challenge (PMC), founded and run by the Mathematical Association, is aimed at pupils in years 5 and 6.

The United Kingdom Mathematics Trust (UKMT) runs individual and team challenges for students from age 12 and below to age 18. The Senior Team Challenge is organised jointly with the Advanced Maths Support Programme (AMSP), and the AMSP also runs a Maths Feast team competition for year 10 students.

My experience is that these competitions can have a very motivating effect on students of all ages, and the questions can be used as a valuable classroom resource for helping students to develop their mathematical problem-solving skills. Rather than choosing students to take part, I think the best way to use the competitions is to encourage (but not compel) all students to have a go, on the basis that they have nothing to lose and that students who really couldn’t see themselves doing maths for fun often surprise themselves by really enjoying the experience. Taking part in a competition and being drawn into mathematical problem-solving by the style of questions they use can act as a catalyst to enable students to see mathematical problem-solving as an intriguing and satisfying activity.

When I worked at a large FE/sixth form college in the 1990s, we encouraged all A level Maths students to take the UKMT’s Senior Mathematical Challenge. The large majority of them chose to have a go and many of the teaching staff took the papers too. This produced lots of rich mathematical discussions. It also enabled us to identify that some students had a talent for maths that we and they had not previously realised. This resulted in many students feeling encouraged to take their mathematical studies more seriously and/or consider for the first time the possibility of studying maths at university. Primary and KS3/4 teachers have also told me they are sometimes surprised by children who shine in the competitions but have not yet shown their potential in class, and that this has resulted in an improvement in their attitude towards maths.

The challenges are cheap to enter and easy to administer. If your school/college does not already enter students, I’d certainly recommend that you consider it. Even if you choose not to enter, I recommend that you look at the questions and consider how you could use them as a teaching resource. You can find more information and sample materials through the links below.

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