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

Created on 05 November 2018 by ncetm_administrator
Updated on 06 November 2018 by ncetm_administrator

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

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.

Please add your experiences of using maths challenge competitions below.

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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16 November 2018 13:55
An interesting blog from Charlie Stripp. He fails to mention the other competitions available at no cost to the schools, namely the MEM Challenge and associated competitions organised by Mathematical Education on Merseyside and the Universities of Leeds, Southampton, Newcastle and Aberystwyth .


Links to the Merseyside competitions
By LivuniSTEM
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15 November 2018 03:35
I could not agree more! I lead math in an international school in North America. We have paritcipated for a number of years in the Math Olympiad ( MOEMS) and are now subscribing to the Illinois Math League, a local private school competition and, most recently, an Elementary Math League held locally in Chicago. Most of these are aimed at Years 5 and 6, though the latter included children from Year 4. In addition to this, a parent, herself a math professor, runs a Kangaroo Math Club ( the Candian branch) - this year for Years 3 and 4. Unlike some schools, we do not teach to these tests, and we encourage all to participate. I run a drop in session from November, and it is one of my favorite times in the week! The group includes loud argumentative kids who are keen so defend their strategies and the quieter students who work systematicaly through problems. All feel comfortable and all are developing other skills beside math! WIth a Masters thesis that examined the relationship between formative feedback and a growth mindset in math, I am always determined to engender enthusiasm and self-belief. I make a point of stressing to parents and students that we are novices in these competitions, but that we will just give it a go and have fun! The byproduct is that we have actually done pretty well in some of these competitions, winning team and invidivual contests and winning places in state contests. Even without these wins, if we can help children rid themselves of the concept that there is such a thing as a math brain, they will want to keep on learning, and therin lies so much value!
08 November 2018 13:29
For an account of a mathematics competition in Portugal that focuses on 'moderately-challenging' problems that are accessible by a wide range of pupils, see the following book for lots of examples of the problems and pupil responses: http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-24910-0
By KeithJones
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