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Mathematics Group Projects on the New A-level Mathematics 2018-2019

What impact, if any, does the new reformed A-level have on the mathematical mindset of students? Dr Layal Hakim explains how her students were inspired by a related Incubator project to investigate this important issue. 

As part of the module ECM3735, lead by Dr Barrie Cooper and Dr Layal Hakim, two groups (out of a total of 15) of eight students each conducted a project analysing the effect of the new A-level on their transition to studying mathematics in higher education.

I was inspired by Dr Matt Finn’s Education Incubator project in 2017-2018 where a detailed analysis of the new A-level in geography, English, and biosciences was carried out. Dr Finn’s workshop on the 10th of July 2018 was very enjoyable and I gained many insights. Particularly, I was wondering: How will the new A-level mathematics have an effect on the students who want to study a mathematics-based subject at university?

The students’ interest in this project, when it was pitched in the beginning of the Autumn term, was very high. The larger number of students wanting to take this project required the module leaders allocating two groups for this project. Students were drawn to the idea of researching into a topic that is currently new and innovative.

Many mathematics students are passionate about higher education and how the mathematical mindset of students changes over time according to the topics they are taught, as well as how they revise.

The new reformed AS and A-level mathematics course has been put into practice from September 2017. Prior to this change, there were gaps between the topics taught at A-level mathematics and the topics taught in the first year of a high-rank university such as the University of Exeter. For example, these “gaps” could be in the form of studying a topic on a basic level at A-level, then starting it at a much more advanced level at Exeter; or they could be in the form of not having any knowledge on how to construct proofs at A-level, then expecting to understand and reconstruct proofs at university level with only little preparation.

As part of these projects, students have researched and identified what changes have been made to the A-level curriculum in mathematics, and whether these changes bridge the gaps between A-level mathematics and first year university level mathematics. They have specifically concentrated on the curriculum and topics taught in the restructured Stage 1 courses of the Mathematics degree at Exeter. They have also researched into the question: what impact, if any, does the new reformed A-level have on the mathematical mindset of students?

The projects were 10-weeks long. During these weeks, the students researched into the topic, studied the structure and content of the new A-level and new Stage 1 Mathematics, collected data in the form of questionnaires sent out to A-level students, Stage 2 students, and academic staff in the Department of Mathematics, and met with myself, as I was their supervisor, on a weekly basis to discuss their findings and ongoing performance.

On Wednesday 12th December 2018, a mini-conference took place, where all 15 ECM3735 groups presented their work to members of the department, as well as students and staff from Exeter College. Being inspired by his work, I invited Dr Matt Finn to attend. The students presenting were thrilled and honoured to see him there, as they were aware of his influential work in pedagogy. The presentations went very well. Group A sent their report to Dr Martin Greenhow of Brunel University, a senior lecturer in mathematics and an ongoing researcher in the pedagogy of mathematics in higher education. Dr Greenhow was impressed with the thorough research carried out by the students and provided the students with detailed comments and feedback. Both projects on the new Mathematics A-level will submit a summary of their report to the peer-reviewed research journal MSOR Connections.

The two project titles as well as the abstract are given below.

Project A:

The Effect of the New A-level Mathematics on Mathematics at the University of Exeter

Abstract: The Mathematics A Level and Stage 1 Mathematics course at the University of Exeter both underwent structure and content changes in hopes of providing students with a higher standard and level of education. Throughout our report, we have analysed the successes and failures of both and have conducted our own investigation into whether these changes were sufficient. We produced our own questionnaires to get firsthand feedback from the students who have participated in the new A Level, and also completed statistical analysis to determine whether they feel confident to transition into undergraduate study. Similarly, we collected and analysed data from the current Stage 2 students at the University of Exeter to see if the old A Level syllabus prepared them for the new Stage 1 course. From this, we performed statistical analysis in order to draw conclusions about the improvements to each course. Additionally, we interviewed educators of mathematics to ask about the importance of abstract mathematics. Ultimately, A Level students still feel unprepared in the same areas that students in the past have felt – mainly pure Mathematics and programming. We also concluded that students who completed the new Stage 1 after completing the old A Level were satisfied with the course structure changes but were not prepared for the new Stage 1.


Project B:

Does the Reformed A-Level Provide the Optimal Transition to Higher Education Mathematics?

Abstract: In September 2017 the government introduced new Maths and Further Maths A-Level syllabi. The purpose of this report is to investigate whether the new Maths A-Level optimises the transition into higher education mathematics. This report details the gaps and overlaps between the new A-Level and new Stage 1 at the University of Exeter, as well as analysing how the mindsets of students change when transitioning from A-Level to university mathematics. We shall also highlight how the new changes to Stage 1 at the University of Exeter have helped students, as well as possible improvements that could be made. This report analyses the immediate effects by extensive literature review, interviews with influential figures in mathematical education at both the A-Level and university level, and three different questionnaires sent out to A-Level students, Stage 2 students and Academics. The results from these questionnaires have largely been analysed on SPSS. From these results we have been able to conclude, that the new A-Level provides a better transition into higher education mathematics than the previous A-Level. In addition to discovering the advantages the new A-Level has provided, we have been able to investigate the areas where it is still lacking. We can determine that the new A-Level makes students more disciplined in their study and develops a mindset more conducive to the pedagogy of higher education mathematics, as well as introducing topics and approaches answering questions expected at degree level mathematics.


Dr Layal Hakim leads an Education Incubator project on Continuing Student Development, which focuses on providing support for students of mathematics through the Maths Cafe initiative. To find out more click here or email Layal. 


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