The Future of Maths Textbook design – Bethany Woollacott

Mathematics textbook design in GCSE Oxford Revise Maths

I’m a doctoral researcher at Loughborough University researching Mathematics textbook design with a special interest in mathematical text. My studentship is slightly different from the typical PhD: I am lucky enough to have a collaborative partnership with Oxford University Press so I can understand and account for the practical application of my research.

Since 2017, I have worked with the secondary maths team to learn about the publishing process and all it entails. This includes undertaking yearly internships where I assume a standard editorial role whilst also giving my research perspective on some of their ongoing projects.

One project in particular that I’ve been involved with is the Oxford Revise mathematics series. I was invited to sit in on meetings and give my input whilst the team developed the series. I loved being involved and seeing these books come alive from those very first storyboards.

Concise focus on the exam

I think one of the greatest things about the series is the concise focus on the exam. As this is specifically a revision series – not a day-to-day textbook – everything has been designed to help students do their best in their exams. Everything is designed to help students do their best in their exams.

Using colour for specific design feature

Even the colour palette was carefully chosen with exams in mind, aiming to counteract the stressful connotations of revision with tranquil and calming colours. We used colour across pages to unite similar features and make them easy to quickly identify across different topics (e.g. worked examples are always blue whereas all key points are green).

Mathematics textbook design in Oxford Revise GCSE Maths

Using colour in this way also helps to highlight exam-specific design features: each page has a purple Exam Corner with exam-style questions and purple stickers to show the grade level. These stickers are also used to show the grades of worked examples and the topic itself so that it’s easy for students to find what is relevant for them.

Use of marks

Another helpful feature is that each question and worked example is accompanied by how many marks they are worth. Not only does this emulate the exam but it encourages students to use marks to interpret the question and understand how much detail to include in their answer.

A brilliant extension of this is that these marks are explained in the answers to the exam-style questions at the back of the book. This means that the students get an insight into the mark scheme and how marks are awarded so that students understand how to answer exam questions, something which can often be a bigger hurdle than the maths itself.

Key points

And finally, my favourite feature is the key point boxes which condense vital information so that students can review the main concepts of a topic.

I’ll admit that I usually oppose snippets of mathematical text in favour of getting students comfortable with reading mathematical prose; a skill which I believe is neglected and under-valued in mathematics.

Key points in Mathematics textbook design

However, my research has shown that students love short textual snippets when revising and actually, this feature exemplifies that mathematical text doesn’t have to be complex. These key bites of information show how readable mathematics can be, so perhaps this feature could be a step towards improving students’ confidence in reading mathematics.

For many years, mathematics textbook design has built on previous models, moulded and sculpted by teaching and publishing experiences; I think that this revision series is a brilliant example of how we can adjust this trajectory of mathematics textbook design.

There is a wealth of knowledge emerging from the ever-growing field of mathematics textbook research and applying these findings could realise the potential power of these resources.

Ultimately, I believe this depends upon communication between teachers, publishers and academics to bridge the gap between research and practice.

I came to Loughborough University in 2017 after completing my undergraduate degree in mathematics. I have gained my Masters in Social Science Research whilst being at Loughborough as part of my 1+3 studentship, and I am now in my third and final year. My studentship is fully funded by the ESRC DTP (Economic and Social Research Council Doctoral Training Partnership) and is a collaborative studentship with Oxford University Press (OUP) due to the nature of my research. In particular, I am interested in how students use their mathematics textbook (in post-16 education) and Mayer’s Cognitive Theory of Multimedia Learning. I have a specific interest in mathematical explanations: how they are designed, read and written. My collaboration with OUP enables me to spend 3 months of each year working with OUP’s secondary maths team which gives me a broader perspective of my field as well as an idea of the practical context of my research.

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