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Column: The countdown to Project Maths is on – what should you expect?

This week the State exams begin and Leaving and Junior Certificate students are getting ready to tackle Project Maths. John Devlin has some tips for those worried about the new syllabus.

John Devlin

Project Maths is a new approach to teaching mathematics at secondary level; it attempts to make maths relevant to everyday life by encouraging teenagers to understand concepts using practical techniques.

ON JUNE 7 and 10, over 110,000 Leaving and Junior Certificate students will sit their maths Paper 1 and Paper 2.

As expected, one of the main talking points remains the controversy around Project Maths, the new syllabus currently being phased in to teach maths through real-life and everyday situations.

Uncertainty over the type of questions that will be asked is one of the main causes of anxiety among our students. Even those who have, ad nauseam, practised the sample papers provided by SEC (State Examination Commission) and other private companies still worry ‘what if something is asked that I haven’t seen before?’

Debate about maths syllabus is not new

I deal with maths every day of my life, as a parent of a Junior Cert student, as an engineer, an entrepreneur (founder positivemaths.ie) and an employer of graduate engineers through my company Kinetics Process Consulting. Over the past three years, we have given 18 graduate engineers their first large scale biotech project opportunity in locations such as Switzerland, France and Hungary.

Although it was a long time ago, I remember that same feeling very well. I sat my Leaving Cert in 1979 with the ‘new’ exam format for maths having been introduced in 1978. Our teacher warned us that because there had been an unusually high number of A’s in ‘78 the ’79 exam could be harder as the examiners tried to find the right balance. Despite our anxieties, we all made it through and those of us who wanted to pursue careers in engineering were able to do so.

Thirty-four years later, things haven’t changed. We are still tinkering with the syllabus and still judging our students’ mathematical ability on their performance over a six hour period in June. I believe that more students could be encouraged to study higher level maths and to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), however we need more qualified and passionate teachers, smaller class sizes and we need to reduce the pre-exam anxieties as much as possible.

How many students decided not to sit the higher level paper in June as a result of mock exams which were badly worded, harshly marked and for which they were insufficiently prepared as a result of their class not having finished the course by February?

The desire to succeed

I fully support the concept of encouraging more students into the maths and science fields and I fully support the move to relate the teaching of maths to everyday life; I don’t support the elimination of certain topics from the higher level course and I believe we need to reconsider the type of questions that are being asked on the exam papers. Remember we are trying to encourage students, not discourage them.

However, irrespective of the syllabus and the method of assessment, perhaps the most important ingredient for students to succeed in maths is the desire to do so. This translates into the willingness to spend more time figuring out the concepts, practicing a wide variety of problems and knowing when to ask for help. Some students will understand concepts quicker than others, but once the desire is there, most students can achieve a high level of competence in maths, this in turn will build self-confidence and give students a skill of understanding and learning that can be applied to other concepts within the maths and science fields.

I’m passionate about maths and how it is taught, learned and applied which prompted me to establish www.positivemaths.ie earlier this year to help students who have the desire to learn but may need that extra support in order to understand the concepts and perform better in their exams.

Given the concerns, uncertainty, and stresses surrounding the Project Maths syllabus, the www.positivemaths.ie team will provide a free SOS live chatroom facility from 7 to 9pm every evening from 1 to 9 June where experienced and qualified tutors will be on hand to answer any last-minute questions.

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Relate questions to the basic maths theory

Greek Mathematician, Pythagoras, who lived from 569 to 500 BC, is credited with the discovery of the theorem named after him. However, it is thought that ancient Babylonians and Egyptians who lived thousands of years earlier were aware of the relationship defined by the theorem. So, no matter how much our education system tinkers with the syllabus and assessment, it is highly unlikely that the theory behind the mathematical concepts will change in our lifetime.

With that in mind, it is important for every student to relate the question they are being asked to the basic maths theory (theories) which never change. Specifically, students should follow these steps in preparation for Project Maths type questions:

  1. Know the theory and equations. If you dealing with a trigonometry problem and you know how to apply the three basic trigonometric ratios – Pythagoras theorem, the sine rule and the cosine rule – then you have all you need to solve a right angled or a non-right angled triangle problem. (It is a good idea to practice the use of these relationships with the old format exam papers)
  2. Look through the wording of the question and pick out the maths related information. Bring a highlighter and highlight the relevant pieces of the question. Watch out for numbers written as words, for example thirty instead of 30
  3. If no diagram is drawn for you, try to draw one yourself. Mark in the numerical information you are given. This can be very helpful to visualise what you are being asked
  4. Relate the information you have to the theory and equations. Have you got a right angled triangle or a non-right angled triangle? Have you got two right-angled triangles that need to be solved separately? This will point you to the appropriate equations to be considered
  5. Do not leave any blanks. Attempt every question. If you leave a blank the examiner will have no choice but to give you zero marks for that question. If you attempt the question you will probably get some marks and perhaps more than you think
  6. When asked for your opinion, always try to relate your opinion to the mathematical concepts

Most importantly, remember there are tens of thousands of other students in the same position. You are not alone and as long as you are familiar with the theory and equations, you should have everything you need to solve the problems.

John Devlin is the founder of www.positivemaths.ie, a popular online learning resource for Junior and Leaving Cert maths students. He is an experienced maths tutor, a parent of secondary school students and CEO of Kinetics Process Consulting (KPC), a key supplier of specialist services to the Pharmaceutical and Biopharmaceutical industries. He is also a published author in the field of plant start-up and commission and has 30 years’ experience working in a senior management capacity on some of the largest global biotech investments.

About the author:

John Devlin

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