Steven Walker, Maths Subject Advisor
During the reform of A Level Maths there were four key changes that teachers raised as concerns. Will Hornby, OCR Lead on A Level Maths, discussed these in his blog Four big changes to Maths A Level qualifications, first published in December 2016.
In this series of blogs I’m looking back at these four changes. I have taken a look through the comments from teachers and from stakeholders and assessors to see the impact over these first few years of the new qualifications, focusing here on the requirement for the use of technology to “permeate the study of AS and A Level Mathematics” (DfE April 2016).
The first thing to note in the reform was the removal of a non-calculator paper as part of the assessment (Core 1, an AS unit). This means that topic items such as solving quadratic equations need to be assessed even though numerical answers can be found directly by calculator.
The introduction of specific defined “command words” was designed to ensure students would demonstrate understanding of the mathematics behind the techniques whilst also encouraging confidence with the calculator functionality. Teachers may want to use these command words during classroom discussions, “Find the result …” when it’s just the final answer needed, but “determine the result …” when looking for some justification, or “Show that the result is …” when a clear explanation expected.
See our support poster for a useful student guide.
The most common query is regarding the quadratic solve function. Students need to be able to justify, either with factorisation, completing the square or quadratic formula, how the roots have been obtained. See my earlier blog, Solving complex quadratic equations, for a summary of the type of questions that could be asked and the appropriate working that needs to be seen (even if ‘reverse engineered’ from the calculator results).
You may also like to join us for the “Ask the Examiner” webinars focused on pure.
Teachers and students appear happy with the use of calculators for accessing probabilities from the Normal and Binomial distributions. This was widely seen in the legacy qualification even when the values were available in statistical tables. Although calculators will give P(X >= a) values, rather than students having to calculate 1− P(X <= b), students still need to be careful to identify the boundary values included and excluded and writing down the working means that partial credit may be awarded.
There is a little bit less enthusiasm to embrace the summary statistics functions of the calculator. From the examiner’s point of view, care is needed to avoid the exam becoming a data entry assessment. From the learning perspective it is important that students have experience of using the technology to find the values even if many questions will be more focused on drawing conclusions from given tables of results. Where calculations are set, students will need to know how to change between data entry of individual values and where data is entered with frequencies. The other key thing to remember is which calculator value represents the standard deviation answer expected (population or sample) for the specification.
For more information on the use of technology in the assessment of statistics then you might like to join us for the “Ask the Examiner” webinars focused on statistics.
There has always been a concern that students with graphical display calculators would have an unfair advantage in exams, especially impacting those from more disadvantaged backgrounds who might not be able to afford these more expensive models. Authors will try to set questions to minimise the advantages offered by the graphical display; for example the question will often provide a sketch of a curve described in a question if sight of the shape would help plan a solution.
Whilst every attempt is made to ensure a graphical display calculator does not give unfair advantage to answer questions, there are a few reasons why students may want to upgrade from a scientific model:
For more discussion on this please see my blog on The truth about calculators.
It is not usual for teachers to make use of flipped learning to encourage students to use technology for graphing activities (see my recent blog Flipped learning: ideas for A Level Maths). Options such as GeoGebra and Desmos have a good selection of resources and the emulators available for calculators allow direct practice on the tools available in the exam room.
Some teachers are going into the technology aspect in more depth, with the introduction of programming. Python for A Level Mathematics and Beyond by Dr Stephen Lynch gives a nice introduction for teachers or students. This would be an especially useful “taster” for students interested in taking the Further Maths B (MEI) – H645 optional FPT – Y436 component in year 13.
The OCR delivery guides provide teaching notes and links to third party resources which can be found on Teach Cambridge. You may also find the teaching activities focused on developing confidence with calculators useful with your students.
We are also planning to run specific professional development events focused on the efficient use of technology in Maths and in Further Maths in November.
Share your feedback on the A Level Maths reform below, or join us at our A Level Maths Teachers’ Network webinar on 23 November 2023 at 4–5.30pm. Also look out for our full programme of professional development webinars for 2023/24.
If you have any questions, you can email us at email@example.com, call us on 01223 553998 or tweet us @OCR_Maths. You can also sign up to subject updates to receive the latest maths news, updates and resources.
Steven originally studied engineering before completing a PGCE in secondary mathematics. He has taught secondary maths in England and overseas. Steven joined OCR in 2014 and worked on the redevelopment of OCR’s A Level Mathematics suite of qualifications. Away from the office he enjoys cooking and to travel.