Palmer’s College

Motivating and engaging GCSE Mathematics resit students

This case study focuses on the views of an individual teacher at Palmer’s College and the teaching approaches and classroom activities which he has found to be successful.

The college

Palmers logoPalmer’s College is a sixth form college located in Grays, Thurrock, attended by approximately 2,000 learners. Areas of intense deprivation remain within the borough and few families in Thurrock have experience of further or higher education. The college provision is approximately half A-level or GCSE programmes, and half vocational programmes at either intermediate or advanced level.

Within the college there is a discrete maths department of eight teachers, who all teach on all the maths courses on offer. There are departmental meetings every half term which focus on teaching and there are frequent informal dialogues about teaching in the staffroom.

Level 2 maths provision

Prior to the academic year 2014-2015 all students who arrived at college without a Grade C in maths did a resit GCSE maths course at Foundation level.

For this academic year students completed a screening test and this information, combined with their current GCSE grade, was used to assign them to an appropriate qualification:

  • GCSE Grade D – higher level GCSE re-sit course;
  • GCSE Grade E and lower – Free-Standing Mathematics Qualifications (FSMQs) in Money or Data at either Level 1 or Level 2, depending on the result of the screening tests;
  • Students whose screening test indicates that they are currently at Entry level study Functional Mathematics.

Characteristics of the college’s GCSE re-sit students

Current students may have been entered for GCSE examinations many times already and have failed to achieve a grade C.

Schools are under pressure to maximise the number of pupils who achieve GCSE Grade C. They may spend much time and effort prior to the examination in coaching the pupils to gain maximum marks on examination questions, rather than promoting the learning of maths through understanding. The result of this can be that students arrive in college having forgotten some of the Grade D maths they knew three months previously.

Like many post-16 students, the GCSE re-sit learners arrive in class as mathematically “damaged goods”, with little interest in maths, poor attendance and a belief that it is a subject for which they have no aptitude, reinforced by their previous experiences in tests and examinations.

The college approach to helping these GCSE resit students to succeed

  • Teaching time: In this academic year teaching time has increased from three one hour lessons per week to a total of four hours per week. The four hours may be four one hour lessons or two one and a half hour lessons plus a one hour lesson or two two hour lessons.
  • Role of mathematic teaching staff: Maths teachers are no longer pastoral tutors. The college now has members of staff whose only role is that of pastoral tutors. This has freed up the maths staff to run maths workshops for students who need extra support.

Approaches taken by one teacher

Quote “ The key to answering a problem is understanding it. Once you understand it the answer is trivial”.

Incoming student attitudes and beliefs are addressed by:

  • Working with individuals, talking to students about their aspirations for the future and demonstrating to them that lack of mathematical knowledge and skills could be a barrier to progression;
  • Giving students a questionnaire, both to make them reflect on their personal attitudes to maths learning and to give the teacher an insight into how they are thinking. They are then told about Carol Dweck’s Fixed and Growth Mindsets (and their relevance to successful learning) to try to convince them that success in maths really is possible for them;
  • Ensuring that the teacher, by his or her actions, also embraces a Growth Mindset;
  • Reminding the students that footballers or musicians do not excel solely because of innate ability. They put in hours and hours of practice so that they can produce a high quality performance when it is needed.

Teaching and learning – what works for this teacher

Quote: ” Once you get them working together they’ll learn more from each other than they’ll ever learn from you”

  • Consolidating the basics in number at the beginning of the year;
  • Minimising teacher talk in the lesson. Students learn through talking about maths;
  • Contextualising the learning e.g. a “Dragon’s Den” type scenario where, in one lesson a week, students have to work in small groups to present their answer to a single exam question to the class. Any member of the group can be chosen to present the group’s answer. If their presentation is judged satisfactory, this group chooses the next group to present. If it is judged unsatisfactory, this group gives the first presentation on a different question the following week;
  • Personalising the maths e.g. using students’ names in exam-type questions;
  • Using positive language as much as possible to keep students’ expectation of themselves high e.g. you cannot solve simultaneous equations yet;
  • Teaching the students how to learn or revise by demonstrating the curve of forgetting which shows that to transfer knowledge and skills from the short term to the long term memory frequent repetition is required;

Palmers 1

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  • This repetition is achieved in part by the setting of frequent homework, ideally after every lesson. It may be only one question, to be completed in 15 minutes, to be discussed in the next class while the students’ memory of it is still fresh.
  • Students mark their own work, and give themselves a grade for effort on a scale of 1-4. These grades are often lower than those given by the teacher.
  • Progress is formally assessed once a month.

Quote “I’m interested in the questions you got wrong. Those are the ones we need to fix”.

Summary of success factors

  • Motivating the students through promotion of a Growth Mindset;
  • Higher level entry reinforces the message that the teacher believes students can achieve at this level;
  • Not teaching the full syllabus but concentrating on the topics where students are making errors;
  • Doing maths often by having several lessons per week and frequent homework;
  • Prompt feedback through self marking of work;
  • A focus on student talk and group work rather than teacher talk.


Alvaro DeCarvalho now at Chelmsford College

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