10 things to know about the new Maths A Level
After 24 years teaching A Level Further Maths, Maths whizz Simon focused his attention on tutoring. He’s helped thousands of young people make sense of Maths and now he’s helping you too – aren’t you lucky! He’s even worked as an Edexcel examiner, so knows exactly what they’re looking for.
It’s been a year since schools started teaching the new A Level Maths course; and there’s been a lot of talk about what it’s like and how it compares to what came before.
Change, particularly when it comes to GCSE and A Level courses, can always be tricky; not least because new syllabuses are just as new to teachers as they are to students, and past papers are few and far between.
With this mind, we thought it would be a good idea to address some of the question marks surrounding the new Maths A Level, so that you know what to expect should you be studying (or due to study) the new, revamped Maths course this year or next.
Myth 1: “It’s much harder”
With the new Maths A Level there will be more emphasis on mathematical rigour and problem solving – rather than regurgitating the same old questions as happened in previous years.
However it’s not supposed to be any harder. If students do find the exam harder, rest assured that exam boards will set grade boundaries so that similar proportions of students achieve each grade as in previous years. They’ve already done this with the new Science A Levels which were first examined in 2017, and this worked well and kept things fair.
With this in mind, there’s no need to worry about slipping grades. Just work hard and do your best, and you’ll get the grade you deserve come exam time.
Myth 2: “There’s no AS level Mathematics any more”
AS Level Maths still exists, but it’s a stand-alone qualification and no longer counts towards the full A Level. In simple terms, you either take AS Level or A Level Maths and they’re distinct, although they are designed so they can be taught together in the first year.
All that’s missing is the modular system, and the opportunity for AS module retakes in the A2 year.
Myth 3: ”But there’ll still be chances to retake… …won’t there?!”
No, there won’t.
In the past you could retake modules over and over again and the highest mark would count – so retaking was a no-brainer for many students. The pros and cons of that system are many; but ultimately, exam boards decided that the opportunity for retakes didn’t encourage students to work their hardest from the get go.
This is why the new course is totally linear, with ‘all or nothing’ exams at the end of the two years and the endless retakes no longer possible.
This might sound scary but it’s actually much more akin to the way real life works. And it isn’t really new, either; it’s actually a return to how A levels were examined for years before modules were introduced a few years ago.
Myth 4: “How can it be different? Maths is Maths, after all…”
It is going to be different.
The two biggest changes that teachers will notice (students will probably assume it’s always been like this until they do older papers) are:
- Questions will be more synoptic in nature – this means topics may well be mixed up within one question and there will be fewer single topic questions. It’s worth noting that the International Baccalaureate has been doing this for years and it works.
- There will be more emphasis on Reasoning, Modelling and Problem Solving – which in the new exam jargon are known as the Overarching Themes
Myth 5: “Yes, yes. But it’s still Maths whatever new jargon is being used…”
As we said, it is going to be different. Using the Overarching Themes to explain, here’s what is changing:
Reasoning: Candidates will now need to be able to construct quite complex logical arguments with little or no prompting, as well as explain the reasoning behind the decisions they make. Also wrapped up in this is the more familiar ‘explain what is meant by…’ test of understanding.
Modelling: There are likely to be more questions which test Pure Maths concepts by applying them to ‘real world’ situations. This may take the obvious form of modelling in Mechanics or Statistics, or might be more subtle.
Problem Solving: This is the big one. Many questions will be set in such a way that there’s no obvious starting point or clear route through the question. Students will need to (a) learn not to be afraid of this and (b) be willing to take risks as they try different strategies in the face of such problems.
‘Bravery’ might not be the most likely word to be associated with doing Maths questions but that is exactly what will be needed – are you prepared to get things wrong in order to eventually come out on top?
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Myth 6: “There’ll be no choice in what you can study”
The Department for Education have decided that they’ll specify the content of the new A Level, which will be the same across all exam boards.
Therefore everyone now has to take a dose of Mechanics and Statistics – and there’s no longer a Decision Mathematics option. The real choice comes down to whether you do AS level or A level Further Mathematics.
Having said that, the style of paper and question, as well as what is examined in each of the three papers, will be up to the individual exam boards. This is how this looks in practice:
What’s in each paper?
The table shows how the boards split the different parts of the course over the three 2 hour examinations, but actually the differences go much deeper in terms of length and style of question too. You’ll learn about the questions relevant to your exam board as you progress along your A Level course.
Myth 7: “You can do it all on a calculator”
It’s true that there will no longer be a “non-calculator” paper and that the appropriate use of technology is expected throughout. This is particularly true in the new “Large Data Set” part of the A Level Maths course, in which you’ll be expected to become familiar with the LDS and know how to take samples from it, “clean” the data and calculate summary statistics.
During the course you’ll also be expected to use spreadsheets and other modelling apps to analyse the data. In the exam, you’ll be expected to demonstrate understanding of how this is done.
Having a calculator will help eliminate simple arithmetic errors; but questions will be designed in such a way so that those who use a calculator as a crutch will not prosper. The emphasis is on the understanding and logical reasoning, and those who cannot demonstrate this will trip up – calculator or no calculator!
Myth 8: “It’s going to be impossible to revise properly for”
The strategy for learning and revising Maths remains largely the same. The great Mathematician Paul Halmos said “The only way to learn Mathematics is to do Mathematics” and there is, indeed, no substitute for practice and lots of it. In order to successfully tackle the new papers, with their increased emphasis on problem solving, the nuts and bolts of the subject must be totally secure.
What’s clear is that the classic method of leaving things until late in the day and then doing every available past paper question will not work any more – as reams of past papers just don’t exist yet!
Therefore, more than ever before, it’s imperative that effective learning and revision takes place continuously during the two year course.
Students must take a lot of responsibility for seeking out and doing extra questions on every topic they meet; and this is where revision resources like ours will come into their own.
Myth 9: “But you can’t practice problem solving – you can either do it or you can’t!”
This is the biggest untruth of them all. Problem solving can definitely be practiced!
A good place to start is the harder end of the new GCSE papers. The extra emphasis on problem solving is already present in the higher end questions at GCSE level, so if you’ve studied this you’ve already had some practice and should find that A Level topics aren’t hard; it’s more the questions that are.
For a great source of appropriate questions, you also need look no further than our website, where a whole new A level Mathematics section is getting ready for launch this year, with plenty of nuts and bolts practice as well as ‘Gold’ level questions which will test those crucial problem solving skills. There will also be model answers to guide you where you went wrong.
Learning to problem solve does not happen overnight. It requires tenacity and courage. It may take several attempts to crack a seemingly easy looking question and you must be prepared to fail before you eventually succeed!
Independence of thought and creative thinking, will be necessary to gain the top grades.
Myth 10: “The changes won’t make any real difference”
Yes, they will! When it comes to Maths, it isn’t the Pythagoras itself (or whatever the topic is) that stands you in good stead in later life, but the ability to solve unfamiliar problems with existing knowledge. This is an invaluable skill in the real world; and it seems that, finally, A Level Mathematics agrees.