Preparing Students for a Mathematics Exam

Preparing Students for a Mathematics Exam

Preparing students for a mathematics exam takes time, patience and careful planning.  In this blog I will share my ideas for teaching students how to prepare for their final exams.  These are strategies that have worked well for me and I have seen work well for others. 

Creative writing to formulate ideas

Students need space and time to formulate their approach to solving complicated questions.  Working in their book, on a mini whiteboard or in an exam booklet does not always provide enough space.  Therefore, I let students write on their desks with dry wipe markers.  They really like doing this and often find it very helpful.  It is very effective at helping students learn how to work together and promoting discussion.

Exam questions as starters and extended plenaries

As students enter the classroom, I give them two past exam questions that recap the previous lesson.  The first is a more traditional style question and the second has a greater problem-solving element to it.  Shown below is example of two questions on recapping simultaneous equations.

Question 1 – Traditional Style

Solve the simultaneous equations.

2x + y = 18
x – y = 6

Question 2 – Problem Solving

Joe travels for x hours at an average speed of 12 km/h.

He then travels y hours at an average speed of 4 km/h.

In total he travels 48 km at an average speed of 6 km/h.

Work out x and y.

The last 12 to 15 minutes involve completing a challenging exam question where the skill that was taught in the lesson forms a small part of a much bigger question.  All the UK examination boards have released several problem-solving papers which provide lots of examples to choose from at varying levels of challenge.

Links to GCSE Mathematics Problem Solving Papers

Exam questions with examiner reports

Whenever possible I like to show the class the examiner’s report to a question they are attempting.  This helps the students to compare their performance against those who have been through the real thing.

I like it when the examiner’s report explains most candidates found the question challenging as this is opportunity for the students to impress.  Students who like a challenge have something to aim for and those who struggle like knowing others have encountered the same problems.

Replicate the exam hall with difficult questions

In June of Year 11 students will be assessed by their performance to answer some very complicated questions.  They will not be allowed to ask for help and it is likely they will never know whether their answer to a question is correct.  They will have to trust their interpretation of what they think the question is asking and their method in attempting to solve it.  This is a scary experience which students must be prepared for.

Preparing students for a mathematics exam

When preparing students for a mathematics exam they need to learn how to overcome difficult questions while in a maths lesson.  If they do not learn how to do this under the supervision and care of their maths teacher, they will simply not be able to do it in the final exam in June.  Therefore, to help prepare students for the final exams I rarely give them the help they want, and often too quick to ask for, in lesson.  For instance, I am often asked to check their answer, help them get started or check part of their method.  My response is: ‘Read it out loud to me’, ‘Does it make sense to you?’ or ‘What do you think?’ then I walk away.

This can be frustrating for the students, but they understand I am giving them the help they need not the help they want.  The help they need is time and the trust of their teacher that they can overcome the struggle on their own.

Should a student have asked for help I will keep an eye on them.  If they continue to make no progress after a while, I will provide the smallest of clues to keep them motivated.   I always go through the questions in depth at the front of the classroom but only after they have had enough time to attempt it the best they could.

Exam papers for homework

Every week my exam classes must complete a past exam paper for homework.  The lesson it is due in is always given over to working through the paper as a class.

On Friday when we go through the exam paper the class are asked to mark each other’s work by working in pairs or small groups.  They do this without a mark scheme.  I provide no answers or modelling whatsoever for the first two-thirds of the lesson.  My intent is for students to discuss their answers and have the confidence to know their solution is correct by checking their reasoning against their peers.  Where their answers differ, there is an opportunity for discussion and sharing of methods.  Students must agree on the correct answer  before moving on to marking the next question.

Students become the validators

If I was to provide the mark scheme early in the lesson the students would have no reason to explain their reasoning to each other.  This way they learn how to validate their own work through developing their reasoning with a peer.

In the final third of the lesson I present the mark scheme on the board and quickly go through the answers.  Should students remain unclear about how to answer the question, I take the time to model the solution in depth on the board.

No differentiation.  Just good modelling and questioning

In the final exam all students are judged on their ability to answer the same questions.  They can not choose which questions, or they will lose marks.  Therefore, I have the same expectation for every student to attempt every question regardless of their self-perceived ability.  Maybe they cannot achieve all 5 marks on a 5-mark question, but they could achieve 2 or 3 marks if they were given enough time.  

When students apply such effort attempting the challenging questions it is important, they do not judge themselves by their final answer.  Therefore, when feeding back the solutions I work through the entire problem slowly and carefully, making sure to address all the misconceptions.  This way students can track their progress through the question and see what they needed to have done next.

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