Sunday 4 December 2016

Should you stick with honours maths?

With the results of the mocks in hand, maths is a big issue for Leaving Cert students

Published 20/04/2016 | 02:30

Pupils from the Leaving Cert honours Maths class pictured with their teacher, Gary Flanagan (left) at Moate Community School in Co Westmeath. Photo: David Walsh
Pupils from the Leaving Cert honours Maths class pictured with their teacher, Gary Flanagan (left) at Moate Community School in Co Westmeath. Photo: David Walsh
Leaving Cert honours Maths teacher at moate Community School in Co Westmeath, Gary Flanagan, with principal Tom Lowry. Photo: David Walsh

Seven weeks to go to the Leaving Certificate, and the question uppermost in the minds of many sixth year students is 'should I drop honours maths'?

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With the results of their mocks in hand, candidates are weighing their options, particularly students who are borderline in terms of achieving the all-important pass in the higher level paper.

Betty McLaughlin, president of the Institute of Guidance Counsellors (IGC) and a guidance counsellor at Coláiste Mhuire CBS, Mullingar, Co Westmeath, says it has been cause of huge concern for many students in recent weeks.

The stakes are very high. A minimum 40pc (grade D3) delivers a CAO points bonus of 25, making the D3 worth 70, the equivalent of a C1 in another subject. The bonus applies all the way up the scale, giving an A1 a value of 125 points.

The downside is that a student who misses the D3 by even a few marks not only doesn't get the bonus, but gets no points at all for that subject.

That will change in 2017, when the new Leaving Cert grading scheme will award points to candidates who achieve 30-39pc on a higher level paper, taking the risk out of the gamble in maths.

But changes ahead are of little comfort to current sixth years struggling to decide whether, at this stage, when every minute of revision counts, the extra time and effort required in preparing for the "honours" paper will pay off. If it doesn't, the bleak alternative is zero points in the subject.

The CAO counts a student's six best results, and for college applicants to get the full value of the bonus, higher level maths needs to be in that mix.

So, even if the extra effort required in higher maths yields the minimum D3, giving 45 points plus the bonus of 25, the student has to consider whether achieving that 70 was at a cost of a B3 (75 points), or higher, in another subject or, perhaps, in more than one other subject.

The bonus was introduced in 2012, as part of a Government drive to encourage students to aim higher and, in so doing, boost national maths standards.

Another initiative was the new way of teaching maths, through the Project Maths syllabus, with its focus on problem-solving. Exam candidates now find that not only do they need to know mathematical formulae, but have to read through a lot of text in questions and apply their knowledge to new situations.

Initially, the bonus lured high-achieving ordinary level students out of their comfort zone. Now, more middle-ranking ordinary level students are stepping up to the "honours" class - and this cohort is more likely to be under pressure to get over the D3 line.

The success rate in higher level maths is high, although widening participation is a likely factor in the small, but gradual rise in those falling shy of a D3. Last year, 4.5pc of candidates achieved an E grade (25-39pc), up from 2.9pc in 2013. Therein lies the dilemma.

Ms McLaughlin says the "fear of failure" is the big issue among students: "If they got say, 36pc in their mocks, they are trying to call it".

But even where students feel comfortable about achieving at least a D3, there is still the issue of the time they have to spend on preparing for the higher level exam.

Ms McLaughlin believes that if students are struggling, or are concerned about the amount of time they are giving to higher level maths to the detriment of study in other subjects, they need to consider why they are doing the "honours" paper.

The IGC president says when it comes to college entry "it is not all about higher maths; it is not required for every discipline."

Higher level maths is an entry requirement for some degree programmes but it is not needed for most, including arts law, and most business courses.

On the other hand, a minimum D3 at ordinary level is necessary for entry to the vast majority of third-level courses.

While the bonus is an attraction, points are only part of the equation when it comes to getting a college place; CAO applicants must first satisfy course entry requirements.

According to recent figures from the State Examinations Commission(SEC), some 35pc of exam candidates - 19,000 students or more than one in three Sixth Years - have registered to sit the higher level exam in June.

There is always a fall off on the day of the exam, but whatever the drop, it will come from a very high base this year. In the last couple of years, some 27pc of candidates sat the higher level paper, up from 16pc in 2011, which gives an idea of the scale of the increased uptake in a short few years.

Some students might feel that abandoning higher level maths at this stage represents a waste of effort, but teachers say that the higher order thinking skills they have developed through the course will stand to them in whatever they do.

Aoife Walsh, the Irish Independent's resident guidance columnist and guidance counsellor at Malahide Community School, Co Dublin, says bonus points have impacted the Leaving Cert. experience for many students.

"Many of the conversations I have with higher level maths students, especially around this time of year, are to do with supporting those who are not coping with the higher level course to realise that they need to drop a level in this subject.

"These students are often extremely stressed when attempting to cope with a course that does not suit their abilities or aptitudes - and it may not even be a requirement for their chosen college course.

"In addition, the idea that they must take higher level maths can often result in difficulty in finding balance in study. This can lead young people to neglecting other subjects, leading to a drop in points across the other six subjects, and lower points overall."

She believes that as a consequence of the increased uptake in higher level maths, students are now less likely to do higher level Irish, despite having the capacity to achieve in this subject.

"Irish has, in my opinion, replaced maths as the subject students decide early on that they 'are not counting' for points purposes", she says.

Both counsellors stress that each case is different and students with any concerns should discuss them with their guidance counsellor and teachers.

'If a student comes to me with 36pc after the mocks I  would say you are doing okay, there is time'

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Tom Lowry, (pictured, above, right with teacher Gary Flanagan) principal of Moate Community School, Co Westmeath and a maths teacher for more than 20 years, says students do experience anxiety around higher level maths at this time and it is not necessarily that they cannot understand, or are not being taught well, but a combination of all the pressures on them.

"They are doing their calculations and looking to maximise their points and they factor in the additional 25. They are saying, 'I can do maths and get an extra 25, and I would need a C1 in another subject to get that'.

"It is asking 18-year-olds, who are already in a stressful situation, to take responsibility for that decision," he says.

Mr Lowry says it does present dilemmas, particularly when students have the results of their mocks,

But he points out that the 'mocks' are the first occasion for students to sit the equivalent of the full Leaving Cert exam and someone who achieves in the mid-30s can get over the line in June.

"If a student comes to me with say, 36pc, I would say 'you are doing okay. It is possible to gain those extra percentage points'."

However, he says he cannot offer blanket advice and students who are concerned about persisting should talk to their teachers, who are best placed to help them make a judgement.

Uptake in higher level maths in his school has more or less doubled in recent years and this year 40 of his Sixth Years are preparing for the "honours" exam.

Since the bonus was introduced, everyone in the school who has attempted the higher level paper has achieved the bonus.

Irish Independent

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