Mathematical skills are fundamental to understanding science as they allow students to make sense of qualitative data. Students are expected to display data in different ways and then use it to draw conclusions as well as make predictions. But many students are scared of maths and do not even attempt questions with a mathematical feel. So, how can we encourage students to give it a go, as often when they put pen to paper they do get some if not all the marks in the mathematical questions in the examinations.
It is important to remember that the maths skills we are asking of students in science are actually lower than the maths department in the same school! But students compartmentalise their learning and feel like they can’t possibly use the skills and tips they have learnt elsewhere in the science classroom or exam. In actual fact, the AQA GCSE Science exams only have a standard of mathematical skills is the same as level 1 GCSE mathematics, which is grades 1 to 3 of GCSE or KS3 mathematics.
Research suggests that if students think they are going to do well in science questions with a maths focus, they tend to have a more positive attitude and feel that they can tackle the questions successfully. Therefore, they have less anxiety in trying these styles of questions. The same research also suggests that older female STEM students are more likely to suffer mathematical anxiety. Therefore, if we as teachers can make students feel more confident at tackling questions then vicariously they are likely to try more of this type of question in an exam and gain more credit.
Confidence comes from practice and feeling reward about getting the right answer. Low stakes tests such as recalling units of key variables, simple manipulation of equations and calculating averages can be used to give instant quick feedback and a feel-good emotion as the students get a good score out of 5.
Often it can be useful to explicitly make links to where students have experienced certain mathematical skills before. This means the learning becomes deeper and more ingrained and can give students a tool kit to approach the questions.
Let’s take an example, speed is in the GCSE forces and motion topic which includes giving examples of typical speeds for walking, running and cycling as well as calculating speed. This is unlikely to be their first experience of the concept of speed.
Students are likely to have some social capital regarding this topic, like the use of a speedometer in a car or the speed of a treadmill. More formally they will have met speed at primary school in their study of measurement in Year 6 mathematics as well as in both KS3 Science and Maths National Curriculum, where students are expected to calculate speed.
We can plan links into our lesson drawing on this past learning and this helps to secure the knowledge and make students feel confident in the topic. For example, have a starter with different images of items going at different speeds (e.g. reaction speed, car reversing, F1 car, cheetah running) and students have to order them from slow to fast. Then extend the thinking by asking students what units could be used to measure each type of speed.
It is important to model how to answer mathematical questions. So, always give a worked example, explicitly sharing the steps that you go through to answer the question. For weaker students you might even provide a proforma with the steps written out and they can fill them in for the specific question.
It might be possible to give some science questions like speed questions to the maths department for them to tackle when they are studying the relevant topic in KS3. This would have the added benefit of letting the students know that they were successful at a GCSE question before they were studying their GCSE and this will boost their self-worth about tackling mathematic questions.
It might even be worth having a collaboration meeting with the maths department and try and teach similar topics at the same time and using similar techniques. This will re-enforce the examination technique to decode the question and have the confidence to try it.
Making maths fun
We can also add a mathematical twist to lessons to help students improve their skills and boost enjoyment:
- Ask students to calculate the mean, median and mode of the colours of smarties in a packet
- Students complete a Hooke’s law practical and their graph can be used as a calibration curve to determine the mass of a bag of sweets.
- Students can model states of matter using polystyrene balls and stick tac and compare that model with the 2D printed ones.
- Use a current news article and find any figures and change them to standard form, different levels of significant figures and using SI prefixes.
How much Mathematics is in a Science GCSE?
It is important that we keep in mind how much of the GCSE Science examination is down to the mathematical skill of the candidate. In the AQA GCSE suite of sciences, candidates will find that the amount of marks given to mathematical skills is different for each subject:
- At least 10% in biology
- A minimum of 20% in chemistry
- The most being 30% in physics
For the combined sciences, a minimum of 20% of marks will test mathematical skills. This comprises of 3.3% overall marks from biology papers, 6.7% in chemistry papers and again the most mathematical marks are found in physics papers making 10% of the overall marks.
The top tips I give the students to help them systematically answer maths-based questions are:
- read the question and underline any numbers
- convert numbers into units that they are familiar with i.e. Kg to g
- In a physics exam, look through the formula sheet and pick the formula that has just one piece of information missing and use this to try and answer the question.
- If you can’t get an answer but you know the unit that the answer is measured in, write that down.
- Re-read the question and make sure that you have supplied the answer to the correct precision.
In conclusion, the best advice is to instil confidence in your students by encouraging them to give it a go and they will achieve, their confidence grows and a snowball effect of success occurs. Now, lets work out the speed of the snow ball!
Sam Holyman is Second in Science at Aylesford School in Warwick, and formerly West Midlands ASE President. She is also the author of a number of best-selling science textbooks for KS3 and GCSE (including the AQA GCSE Foundation: Combined Science Trilogy and Entry Level Certificate Student Book), and a keen advocate of innovative teaching and learning.
Sam was nominated in the Teacher Scientist category for the Science Council’s 100 leading practising scientists, is a Chartered Science Teacher, and has recently been awarded the Lead Facilitator CPD Quality mark.
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