Joe’s Jotter: How to become a Specialist at Maths Exams (Part 1)

Surprisingly, thousands of top Maths students over the years have struggled when it comes to performing to their ability in Maths exams. In my experience, there is now a disconnect between how teachers teach a Maths class and the skills students use during a Maths test.

For some students, a fear almost overcomes them with the thought of a Maths test upcoming.  Similarly, a fair percentage of students that breeze through other subject exams freeze during Maths ones. A significant aspect of Teaching Maths now is helping students overcome their anxieties, while teaching them the key techniques to retain their calmness and confidence.

Sitting a Maths exam is a skill, but it is something that if you practice and apply a defined strategy to, you can get quite good at it. Every day, I work closely with students to teach them these vital skills to excel in all kinds of Maths assessments.  Below are my insights into how to ACE any Maths exam – from the five minute class test to the full on final state examination.

Make Changes to How You Revise and Prepare for Maths Exams

Below are some clipits of advice to help you get set for a Maths exam. Applying these practical guidelines in your revision plan and during exams will 100% improve your grades.

  1. Apply the skills you have learned from practicing past exam questions under time pressure at home. A time budget plan is a key part to success in any Maths exam.
  2. Keep a hardback of Maths notes. Being familiar with words that appear on Maths papers are vital to aid understanding of the questions you are being quizzed on.
  3. Find multiple-choice questions online or ask your teacher if they have some. These are like ‘speed-studying’ and require less time to work through and test yourself on.
  4. Attempt past exam questions. After completing each past exam question, be sure to view its exact and fully developed solution to see how your work stacks up against it.
  5. Stay alert for key words and phrases to guide you through a question. For example, the volume of an object should allow you to find measurements on it by working backwards.
  6. Use familiar mathematics to guide you. Think back to relate the test question to a concept, topic, or technique your teacher did with you in class.
  7. Formulas are key in Maths. Reflect on what formula you know that may help you solve the problem. This formula may in fact be printed on the test paper or in your log tables.
  8. Can the diagram in the question help? Writing relevant information on a given diagram may prompt relevant thoughts and connections to help you start a Maths question.
  9. Show all workings. Always show how to get from one step to the next. Provide all your workings out to support your answer. At the end of each question, always ask yourself ‘Is this a realistic answer or solution to the question being asked?’ Example: Ten metres would never be an acceptable answer for the height of a pencil. You get the Idea.
  10. Read the entire question… twice. Check what the question is asking and in what form you need to present the answer. For example, you might need to round the final answer (decimal places, significant figures, scientific notation) or convert to an annual amount.
  11. Note the key Information given in the question onto your answer book. Subsequently, note the Information that isn’t present. Link these two to help complete the full jigsaw.
  12. Don’t be afraid to utilise diagrams or tables in your solution. This will clarify your understanding of the information in the question and support your workings out.
  13. Show all relevant substitution (subbing in). This shows the examiner that correct Maths processes are being used (e.g. showing the substitution of an x-value into a function). Joe

To view last weeks article on ‘The ACE Guide to Exam Prep from Home”, click here.

More details about Joe as a Maths Tutor for Junior Cycle and Leaving Certificate (2022) and his Award Winning ACE Maths Solution Books can be found via the links below.

ACE Maths Classes:

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Joe’s Jotter: How to become more Successful in Maths (2021)

Grasping a subject of difficulty is always a big challenge for even the best students. One of those subjects is too often Mathematics. Maths seems to have developed a ‘bad boy cred’ over the last twenty years, but I feel things are getting better slowly and I know students feel more positive about it since the introduction of Project Maths in 2008. In general, I think students are enjoying the more practical approach in the subject since the changes. The existing course is however still quite long, and you need to box clever in order to pin it down. Many students are still trying to come to terms with the amount of words on Maths exam papers and indeed how they link to the concepts. I totally get this. However, I still believe you can learn to grasp key concepts without being born a Maths genius.

Can Anyone Be Successful at Maths?

People regularly ask me about this hypothesis, and I believe Maths is a subject everyone can do well in by being more open minded and willing to try different methods. For sure, your parents have a role to play here, so make sure and get them involved. Parents can get involved in homework from an early age and should be encouraged to send notes to the teacher if there is a particular area their child is struggling with. Above all, it is imperative that Parents pass on a positive attitude about Maths early in their child’s development. A ‘can do’ attitude gives the student belief that they can face problems in the subject and come through them. Encouragement and positivity are the most constructive way any parent can help boost their child’s ‘Maths conviction’.

Maths is Learning by Doing

To me, Maths is a subject where you need to be continuously ‘learning by doing’ and the importance of attempting exam style questions cannot be underestimated. Reading through questions and text like you do in other subjects will not work in Maths and having access to a structured solution book for exam questions is important. Inevitably with some challenging questions in the subject, you will run into difficulties getting started and this is where having the first line or two of the solution can be extremely helpful; a detailed solutions book is ideal for this. I believe that referring to the first part of a solution and then revisiting the question yourself is a very efficient way of developing key Maths skills. This technique isn’t one much practiced in other subjects.

Skills That will Improve Your Maths

You must adopt different approaches in Maths; it is unique. A genuine attempt to start a question in Maths will allow you to gain momentum and progress to apply the concepts you have learned in class. In my experience, the biggest stumbling block to achievement in Maths is getting the question started; but a single grain of rice can tip the scales. In general, if you are finding it difficult to get started and feel lost in Maths, start by practicing the part (a) questions in your past exam papers and work your way upwards to part (b) and so on. If you are an exam student, go back on your 2nd or 5th year notes to refresh those key basics. The majority of students just fire notes from previous years in a corner. Past notes should be stored carefully for easy access later. It’s amazing how much you will recall about what you wrote down and what advice your teacher gave you back then. Re-do some questions from then to start a Maths revision session. As you always hear me say, Algebra is jewel in the crown at all levels. Maths is about having a go, knowing the tricks, when to use formulae, consistent practice and really believing in your ability and the work you have done.

More Interesting and Informative Maths feature articles will follow as we lead up to the Junior and Leaving Cert 2022.

More details about Joe as a Maths Tutor for Junior Cycle and Leaving Certificate (2022), ACE Maths Assessments, and his Award winning ACE Maths Solution Books can be found via the links below.











Joe’s Jotter: Secondary Maths – Some Useful Insights for Parents

I think it may be interesting for both students and parents to consider the following observations I have become aware of in Maths over the last number of years. Maths is a very emotive subject, and everyone has their own way of understanding and practicing it. This presents its own set of difficulties. The below insights and observations may help you as a parent to reach out and help your child with Maths in a more positive way.

The Second Year Dip

Firstly, in general, I have noticed that some of my students (and those of my colleagues) experience a slight dip in performance in Maths during their second year in secondary school. This is partly due to workload and the fact that the first-year common course is quite basic. This dip for girls is not as pronounced as for boys. There is also a drop off in fifth year, but it isn’t as extreme as the second year one. If your child is heading into second year, you need to be aware that this could be the case for them. I believe that working diligently on their algebra, fractions and general numeracy would be a big help in overcoming any barriers that block their path. These topics are the three main pillars of Junior Cycle Maths and underpin and are linked to many other topics on the course.

We all need to keep in mind that online learning has not suited some students and that they have missed out on that key face-to-face contact with teachers, especially in Maths. As a parent, it is important that you encourage positivity around this subject and remind them that every student in the country is in the same boat. From a personal point of view, I noticed that last year’s Junior Cycle class did struggle (more than usual) with some topics, but it did eventually come together for them in the end. I expect that the incoming third year cohort will take a while to settle back (through no fault of their own) this year. In fairness, it may take many of them until after Christmas before they settle down into a pattern of revision and work across all subjects. It is understandable that they may not hit the ground running this year and we all need to be cognisant of this.

Girls – Go for it!

From the students I have taught since Project Maths was introduced, I have noticed another trend in my classes. I have spotted that female students are less likely to take risks when attempting past exam questions. The new phrasing of questions on Maths papers suit boys better, as they are less conscious of what they are writing down and are less afraid of being wrong. In my opinion, it is important for girls to express their opinions freely and openly and we, as teachers, need to help them develop this skill. I think it is important for all students not to get unduly perturbed if they cannot get a certain part of a question out perfectly. In Maths now, it is more important to go onto another question (within the allotted time), instead of looking to complete every single question part absolutely perfect.  I feel that Churchill’s (not the dog) quote is quite apt for our modern day Maths syllabus.

“Perfection is the enemy of Progress”.

Winston Churchill (Former Prime Minister of the UK)

One does not really have time for absolute perfection on a Maths paper as they tend to be quite long, and unlike other subjects, there isn’t as much time for admiring your work. Students should apply this principle across the board to all their Maths tests in 2021/22.

The New Practical Style Questions

Thirdly, girls especially need to practice more exam questions involving engineering and mechanical parts. My reasoning for this is that, in general, most of the student cohort studying Engineering, Construction studies and Design/Communication Graphics (DCG) at Leaving Certificate are boys, and girls are not being exposed to this specific type of learning. With more everyday life practical questions being the order of the day in Maths, it is inevitable that more technical and mechanical questions will appear in years to come, and girls and parents of girls need to be aware of this. This trend will slowly become more pronounced if the Governments’ promotion and focus on the Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) subjects continues and I expect it will.

Follow Your Passion

Lastly, in a recent survey, twenty-nine percent of Irish parents surveyed thought that technology subjects weren’t suitable for girls and fifty-three percent of girls in secondary school dropped STEM subjects due to pressure from their parents. These statistics may be contributing to the lack of representation of females working in STEM. Students and parents need to be aware of the excellent third level courses and future career opportunities available in these areas for both genders. Students need to be encouraged to explore all avenues of interest and follow their career path of choice. Pursuing some spinoff of the subjects that a student enjoys each day in school wont set them too far wrong. Joe

To view last weeks feature article on ‘ACE Tips for Transitioning into 1st Year (Part 1)’, click here.

More details about Joe as a Maths Tutor for Junior Cycle and Leaving Certificate (2022), ACE Maths Assessments, and his Award winning ACE Maths Solution Books can be found via the links below.









Project maths-the silver bullet or a step in the right direction?

Project Maths –the silver bullet or a step in the right direction?

Maths teacher and ASTI member Joe McCormack looks at the impact and challenges of Project Maths The new Project Maths course is well and truly upon us now at this stage. This new way of teaching and learning maths will be given a fair shot to see if it can raise maths competency and increase the cohort of students who take higher level maths. Last June, Strands One and Two of the Project Maths syllabus were examined in the Leaving Cert with students studying the new course on Probability/Statistics and Geometry/Trigonometry, alongside other topics from the ‘old’ maths syllabus. This cohort only began to study the new syllabus in Fifth Year and so the students were in the precarious position of having to try to understand the “Project Maths way” in just two years. While, in general, the “old” course saw the above topics examined as separate questions with little linkage between them, June’s exam paper, in some places, linked topics together. I welcome this new association since we now live in an integrated world where problems, both academic and real life, need to be solved using a mutli-pronged approach. The Leaving Cert class of 2013 will need to need to be even more competent in dealing with the new concepts as they take on Strands Three and Four of Project Maths. Like the 2012 students, this year’s class will have studied the old syllabus at Junior Cycle, which means they have to work hard to adjust to the new course. Most teachers would agree that it would have been more beneficial for Project Maths to be introduced to only First Year students initially, with these students working their way up through the system, building on the concepts from the foundation up. Leaving Cert 2012 The results are now out for the class of 2012, so what are their implications and what kind of reaction have they got thus far? Firstly, an increase in the numbers opting for the Higher Level maths paper was anticipated, but the surge of 35 percent on last year’s numbers exceeded expectations. In actual terms, the uptake on this paper increased from 16pc to 22pc. This year 11,100 candidates sat the higher level paper, up from 8,235 in 2011. Almost all of them (98pc) were eligible for the additional 25 bonus CAO points because they achieved a D3 or higher in the subject. This should give great encouragement and reassurance to students in two minds whether to take this level. The bonus points inevitably contributed to higher CAO cut-off points in areas such as science and technology. Points for such courses were expected to rise anyway, driven by the increase in demand from students heeding the advice of Government and employers in relation to jobs. However, this initiative does not seem to have distorted the points system as much as was expected with only approximately 3,000 students using maths as one of their six CAO subjects and thereby benefiting from the bonus points. This would indicate that different or additional measures may be needed. Employers have welcomed the results but warned there was no room for complacency. Student feedback Students’ experiences and feedback on Projects Maths, in general, are mixed. From my experience, the First Years are enjoying the common introductory course. For example, the new Probability section allows them to get involved in more practical maths in the classroom, enhancing their learning on the primary school topic ‘chance’. I believe the more practical questions will increase students’ interest in the subject because they relate more to student’s everyday experiences. The teacher will have more opportunities for open discussions on topics in class and allowing students to back up their answers with relevant information should also allow them to express themselves more, leading to them developing a deeper knowledge of topics. In parallel with this, if a student can argue their case properly in the context of what they are being asked, they could be in line for very high marks. I see this as a positive development as it will foster creativity and promote independent thinking. However, in my opinion, there needs to be a more balanced paper set at all levels. Some elements of the papers were marked too easy while topics in other areas were too difficult. I would be more in favour of questions that are fair with a more rigorous marking scheme applied, if necessary. It would be nice if students finished their Post Primary Maths experience satisfied that they did their best and that the rewards reflect their efforts. They shouldn’t feel traumatised to a point that preparation for other exams might be compromised. This year, most students got the result they deserved anyway so why should we put our students through this? We, as teachers, want to see our students given a genuine opportunity to show what they have learned. I feel that they cannot do this with complicated over wordy questioning aligned with some abstract university type problems. Surely every student deserves simple language and somewhat relevant questions on their paper? Social media has allowed students to feedback openly on the new course. The idea of being able to write on the paper is clearly one they welcome. However, practical issues must also be considered: will the length of a student’s answer be influenced by the amount of space allocated for each sub question? Unfortunately, I think a weaker student could be drawn into the idea that a small amount of space for a question might mean a very short solution is required. Also, students must be given enough room to write their answers to a particular part of a question on the same or next page. Teaching challenges There is no doubt that teachers will need to adjust to this new practical way of teaching their subject. They will need to choose their books carefully and use a wider range of resources outside these books. They will need to think outside the box and try to bring some of these new topics to life using practical examples and real life demonstrations. They will need to be more ICT proficient; I believe the Department may need to look at some more Continuous Professional Development in maths specific ICT. One of the biggest challenges for the classroom maths teacher is time. At the moment, it is hard to gauge how much time to spend on each topic and sub topic. Teachers will learn, as each year passes, to structure the course better, including the topic order and timeline. They will learn to choose the best paths through each topic while keeping a closer eye on the syllabus than ever before. However, I believe the Leaving Certificate courses at both Higher and Ordinary Level in their current format may now be too long. Looking through the available exam papers, the length of some of the questions has increased significantly. Those schools that haven’t done so already may need to introduce a double maths class on their senior cycle timetable. In parallel, I envisage a situation where schools may start investing Transition Year maths time to teach some of the Project Maths syllabus and concepts. The marking scheme will be interesting too with the new credit system seeing students being marked from zero up. At present there are a number of graded versions inside the marking scheme. After seeing how this year’s papers were marked, many teachers I spoke to felt the Department hasn’t yet hit the target with the weighting of marks. Students and teachers need to be given more concrete information on how the exam is being assessed. I welcome the Department’s Initiative to create a “Professional Diploma in Mathematics” course. This is a free two year course to upskill maths teachers and to support the implementation of Project Maths. There is an incentive there for many maths teachers to improve their skills and the Department has, in fairness, improved the resources available to teachers via the Project Maths team. In general, we as maths teachers are still a little sceptical about Project Maths. There is also a concern about some topics that have been removed from the syllabus that may be necessary for some mathematically related university courses. In a survey of 253 members of the Irish Maths Teachers Association (IMTA), over 77 percent thought students would benefit if maths teaching in schools was combined with industrial visits to view real-life application of maths. The Government has little money to spend; industry must be encouraged to support the work of maths teachers as much as possible to bolster the effectiveness of Project Maths.

Project maths-the silver bullet or a step in the right direction?

Project maths-the silver bullet or a step in the right direction?
Project maths-the silver bullet or a step in the right direction?More details about Joe as a Maths Tutor for Junior Cycle and Leaving Certificate (2022), ACE Maths Assessments and Solution Books via the links below.