GCSE resit students in the Post-16 sector know that the PASS is all important, and that a C on their results slip will mean that more, and more rewarding, doors are open to them. But they have many barriers to learning that they have built around them over the previous eleven (at least) years of studying maths and, as they see it, failing it again and again. GCSE resit tutors in Post-16 colleges have the task of building confidence as well as teaching maths, of breaking down those barriers and showing their students that it’s not that they have failed in the past, it’s that they just haven’t passed YET.
The skills of calculator use are frequently brushed over in the Post-16 classroom. It’s assumed that the students have been using their devices all through school, and that in the modern digital age every student knows exactly which button to press to get the right answer. Unfortunately, more often than not, this is most certainly not the case.
It is common for students not to own a calculator. The version that they had was lost or disposed of in that magic time between the exam in Y11 and results day, when they hoped beyond hope that they had passed. Why would you walk around with a scientific calculator to hand? To be honest, in everyday life, it’s fine to whip out your phone and use its calculator, or – more likely – an app or a search engine to calculate for you. And when students do come to lessons equipped with a calculator, you are often faced with a multitude of makes, the legacy of each of your college’s many feeder schools having their own “recommended” model … and not one instruction manual!
With 50% of marks in the current GCSE being on a calculator paper, it’s vital that students have access to a calculator and that they know how to use it effectively and efficiently in order to gain as many marks as possible. Once the 9-1 Maths GCSE kicks in in FE, this could rise to two-thirds of marks being allocated to calculator papers. Sometimes, students are so eager to show as much “actual maths” as possible, they attempt by hand questions on the calculator paper which could have been done a lot more efficiently with the pressing of a few buttons.
So, bearing all of this in mind, here’s a short-and-by-no-means-exhaustive set of strategies and ideas to ensure that you are helping your resit students make the most of their new best maths-friends: their calculators.
Write down intermediate steps
There are questions which specifically test calculator entry, and mistakes can be made by pressing a 1 instead of a 2. Students should always work through the problem step by step and record as they go by showing results from their calculator screen, not just the final solution.
Use calculators as instant feedback machines
Students can be encouraged by being able to see that they are getting the right answers to mental and/or written calculations. Calculators don’t criticise or express disapproval at wrong answers – they can actually motivate students to try again.
Back things up
Practise skills of estimation and approximation alongside calculator skills. If students have a rough idea of the answer they are looking for, they are more likely to examine the solution the calculator provides and check it makes sense. And this is an important workplace (and life-in-general) skill, much valued by employers.
Let students play
Students need to get used to how their calculators work. Set aside time for them to play with their devices. Give them freedom to figure out what buttons to press and when – this is very like how we first learn computer games or how to work apps. Quick tutorial, then have a go!
Compare and contrast
It can be a useful exercise to give students the same calculation, and explore the key press sequences on different models of calculator. This can bring out lovely mathematical discussion, especially with regards to order of operations. Using a visualiser or similar can show students what buttons to press on the big screen - for example, when squaring a negative number, some models will put in brackets for you, whilst others expect you to add these yourself.
No “No phone Zone”
Why? Let them get their phones out. All mobile phones have a calculator function, and it’s important that students learn how to use it. Granted, they cannot use it in an exam, but for life outside studies, knowing the intricacies of the first genuinely universal pocket calculator is vital – especially since many phone calculators don’t follow the operation rules that are programmed into scientific calculators, and so will declare that 3 + 2 × 5 = 25 not 13.
What have you done to overcome your students’ uncertainty with, perhaps even anxiety about, their calculators? What activities, challenges and games have you found to be effective? Let us know, by email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet us @NCETM.