Posts Tagged ‘A level’

A little circle problem 

June 28, 2017 Leave a comment

I’ve just seen this post from Colin Beveridge  (@icecolbeveridge) answering this question:

Naturally I had a go at it before reading Colin’s solution. When I read his I found a lovely concise solution that we slightly different to mine, so I thought I’d share mine.

I started by just drawing a right angled triangle from the centre of the circle like so.

I seem to have cut off the denominator of 6 on the angle there. I know that the hypotenuse is 12-r (where r is radius) and the side opposite the known angle is r.

This means I can use the sine ratio of pi/6 to get  

r/(12-r)  = 1/2

Which leads to:

2r = 12 – r


3r = 12

r = 4

Which is the same as Colin got. 

I’ve seen questions like this on A level papers before and I know they often throw students, so I make sure I explore lots of geometry based problems and puzzles to combat this. I’d be interested to know which way you would approach this. Colin and I used a very similar approach, just differing in the point at which we introduced the 12. Which way did you do it? 

Categories: A Level, Maths Tags: , , ,

Proving Products

June 26, 2017 1 comment

Just now one of the great maths based pages I follow shared this:

So naturally I figured I would have a go. I thoughts just get stuck in with the algebra and see what happens, normally a good approach to these things.

My first thought was that if I use 2n – 3, 2n -1, 2n + 1 and 2n +3 then tgere would be less to simplify later. I know that (2n + 1)(2n – 1) = 4n^2 – 1 and (2n – 3)(2n + 3) = 4n^2 – 9 so I multiples these together.

(4n^2 – 1)(4n^2 -9) = 16n^4 – 40n^2 + 9

I thought the best next move would be to complete the square:

(4n^2 – 5)^2 – 16

This shows me that the product of 4 consecutive odd numbers is always 16 less than a perfect square and as such that the product of 4 consecutive odd numbers plus 16 is always a square.
(4n^2 – 5)^2 – 16 + 16 = (4n^2 – 5)^2 
A nice little proof to try next time you teach it to your year 11s.

A lovely old problem

July 11, 2016 Leave a comment

Recently Ed Southall shared this problem from 1976:

I’m not entirely sure if it is from an A level or and O level paper. It covers topics that currently sit on the A level, but I think calculus was on the O level at some point. Edit: it’s O level I saw the question and couldn’t help but have a try at it.

First, I drew the diagram – of course:

I have the coordinates of P, and hence N so I needed to work out the coordinates of Q.  To do this I differentiated to get the gradient of a tangent and followed to get the gradient of a tangent at P.

Next I found the equation, and hence the X intercept.

And then, because I’m am idiot, I decided to work out the Y coordinate I already knew and had used!

The word in brackets is duh…..

Now I had all three point.

It was a simple division to find the tangent ratio of the angle.

The next 2 parts were trivial:

And then I misread the question and assumed I’d been asked to find the shaded region (actually part d). 

Because I decided calculators were probably not widely available in 1976 I did it without one:

I thought it was quite a lot of complicated simplifying, but then I saw part c and the nice answer it gives:

Which makes the simplifying in part d simpler:

I thought this was a lovely question and I found it enjoyable to do. It tests a number of skills together and although it is scaffolded it still requires a little bit of thinking. I hope to see some nice big questions like this on the new specification.

Edit: The front cover of the paper:

Mathematical Style

May 11, 2016 11 comments

Yesterday I read this post from Tom Bennison  (@DrBennison). The post was written to start a conversation for a twitter chat that I unfortunately couldn’t make. It did, however, make me think.

He was questioning Wetherby mathematical elegance and style should be assessed at A level. Suggesting that solutions with more elegance should be awarded more marks.

Bizarrely, the example he used was almost exactly the same as a discussion if had with a year 13 class not long before I read his post. His example was finding the midpoint of a quadratic. He looked at two methods – completing the square and differentiation – and suggested that as CTS is more elegant that should be worth more.

I agree immensely that CTS is a preferable method with far more elegance, but I don’t think the marks should be different depending on the  method you choose. I feel that we should be encouraging mathematical thought, trying to create young mathematicians who can apply themselves to a problem and find their own way through. I feel if we start assigning marks for elegance and style them we would be moving towards the “guess what’s in my head” style of assessment that I feel we need to be moving away from. The way to do well would be to spot from a question what the examiner wants, rather than to apply the mathematical tools at ones disposal and find a solution.

Back to that Y13 lesson I mentioned, we were looking back over some C3 functions work and one of the questions involved finding the range of a quadratic function – so obviously it was necessary to.find the minimum. A discussion ensued as to how to do this with students coming up with 3 valid methods. The two mentioned above, both of which I find quite elegant, although I do much prefer CTS. The third method was suggested by one student who said “it’s -b/a – you just do -b/a” I knew what he meant – he was saying that this was the x value where the minimum occurred and that you put that in to find y, but he didn’t really understand what it was or why. He’d come across the method online and has learned it as a trick. When I showed him it came from completing the square and looking at it as a graph transformation, I saw the light bulb come on.

It is an interesting discussion. Some methods are far more elegan, and some are just algorithmic tricks. I think that the lack of understanding with these tricks will lead to marks being lost.  So perhaps this will self regulate.

I’d love to hear your views in this, which way would you tackle finding the minimum of a quadratic?  And do you think we should assign marks to elegance and style?

Passivity in the maths classroom

April 27, 2016 Leave a comment

Today I managed to find a few minutes to browse the latest issue of Maths Teaching, the ATM journal. One article that caught my eye was the “from the archive” section, where Danny Brown (@dannytybrown) introduced an article that was first published in 1957. The article was written by Ruben Schramm and is entitled “The student’s passive attitude towards mathematics and his activities.”

The article discusses mathematics teaching, particularly the nature of students who often, for whatever reason try to find an algorithmic method to follow to solve a problem, looking to recognise the problem and answer it in a similar way to how they have answered questions before. This is a problem that was obviously prevalent in the 1950s, as evidenced in the paper, but it is still prevalent now, and I feel the nature of our exam system must at least hold a portion of the blame. The questions on exams tend to be very similar and students will learn methods to answer them whether the teachers like it or not. This is one issue I hope will be dampened a little with the upcoming changes to the exams.

Schaum suggests that this passivity in maths, this tendency to look for algorithms, is in part down to how students see mathematics. He suggests that when they see teachers solve problems on the board by delivering a slick, scripted solution they can get a feeling that it is via “witchcraft” and see the whole process of uncoordinated steps, rather than a series of interconnected mathematical ideas. The latter would encourage the students to drive the mathematics from their internal ideas, and this would lead to them being more able to apply their knowledge in new contexts. If we can develop this at all levels then I feel we really would be educating mathematicians – ie giving students the skills to be able to apply their knowledge in new contexts, rather than teaching them to follow a recipe to answer a question.

Schaum goes on to discuss authority, the infallible authority that students see in their teachers and in the mathematical theorems and formulae. It is suggested that students see these theorems as infallible, and as such they reach out for them in their memories and try to apply them to problems. This can mean that the problem they are applying them too is only vaguely similar to the problem the theorem or method is actually there to solve. Schaum calls these “analogy mistakes”, and suggests that it is down to how comfortable with the content students feel that mean they revert to them. I feel that this is true in part, but that also the pressure of exams can lead students to confuse things in their head if they have opted to learn algorithms rather than looking to develop a deeper understanding.

I’ve had a couple of examples of these “analogy mistakes” in lessons and exams recently. A year 12 student came to an afterschool elective as she was trying to solve some coordinate geometry problems involving tangents. She had gotten herself really confused because in her notes she had written tangent gradient is perpendicular (when discussing circles) but she didn’t think it should be perpendicular because a tangent at a point should have the same gradient as the curve. I spend a little time discussing where her misconception had come from (her notes should have said “perpendicular to the radius”) and discussed how she could remember this more easily if she has thought about the graphs and sketched them.

Another example was in a recent exam one of my students had answered part of a question on alternative from incorrectly, she had done the alternative form bit well and the answer was 25 Sin(x + a), but it then asked her for the maximum she had written -25. When I questioned her about this after it seems she had fallen victim to an “analogy mistake”, she had remembered that “maximum is positive” when discussing second derivatives and in the pressure of the exam this memory had taken over, rather than the rational thought process that should have flagged up that the maximum or the function would be 25, which is definitely bigger than -25.

In his preface Danny Brown suggested that one way to counteract this would be by questioning and discussion, if we remove the authority from the discussion and don’t validate the answers by issuing statements saying they are correct or incorrect, but rather open them as conjecture to the class who then can discuss this, then we can allow students to develop their own mathematical ideas. Lampert (2001) also discussed this idea and suggests that as teachers we need to be striking the right balance between allowing students to discuss and conjecture and ensuring they understand what is important and aren’t making mistakes. This is something I strive for in my own classroom, and something I am currently working on trying to improve.

This post was cross posted to Betterqs here.

An Interesting Conics Question

March 14, 2016 1 comment

My AS further maths class and I have finished the scheme for learning for the year, leaving oodles of time for review, recap and plenty of practice. Currently we are revisiting topics that they either didn’t score too well on the last mock in or that they have requested we look at again due to lacking confidence.

Today we were looking at conic sections,  by request of the students, and this past paper question caught my eye:


We had recapped the topic quickly together then the students attempted so past paper questions. This one was one they rook to well, all competing the first 2 sections quickly and without trouble. Likewise, part c was mostly uneventful – bar one or two silly substitution errors and someone missing a difference of two squares factorisation.

Then they got to part d.

This caused them a little bit of worry so we worked together on it as a class, after we’d made sure everyone had a, b and c right.

Here’s what the board looked like when we’d done:


I asked the class what we should do to start, one suggested drawing a diagram all this nagging about always drawing a diagram, especially if your stuck is paying off! We drew it, but it didn’t help much:


Then one said, “if they’re parallel then one gradient is -1 over the other” – I refrained from scolding and calmly said “indeed, those gradients will be negative reciprocals of each other”. I think asked what the gradients were and quickly had “y1 – y2 over x1 minus x2” thrown at me.

So we worked out the gradient of the line join in n to the origin:


Then the gradient of PQ:


One then suggested we put the equal to each other,  but he was corrected by another student before I could react. So we set one equal to the negative reciprocal of the other and solved:


A lovely question, with a lovely neat answer and a load of fun algebra on the way. I enjoyed watching the students tackle it and was glad I didn’t need to put too much input in myself.

We then discussed the answer and the class expressed surprise that 1 was the final answer and that a complicated algebraic journey could end so simply. It was a nice discussion and a nice way to start the day, and the week.

This post was cross-posted to One Good Thing and Betterqs

Activity Networks and Critical Paths

March 12, 2016 3 comments

When I first came to teach Activity Networks and Critical Paths I couldn’t really remember being taught them. I knew I had studied critical path analysis, but my memories of them were no less vague than that. In order to teach them I refreshed my memory using an edexcel textbook, as it was the board we used, and I got to grips with the “on arc” method.


This year I’ve been teaching a class as part of the core maths early adopters programme and we have selected the AQA qualification. For our optional content we chose the critical path option (option 2b). When browsing the mark scheme for the specimen paper I saw this:


Apparently the “on node” method. When I first looked at it it seemed strange. I had a good think about it and once I’d got my head past the fact that the “late time” was the latest an activity could finish, rather than the latest an activity could start – as in the “on arc” method, I think I actually prefer it.

The thing my students find hardest every year is drawing an activity network, especially where dummies are involved, and it seemed to me that this “on node” method would be much easier in this respect, and that dummies wouldn’t need to be considered. I did worry that actually identifying critical activities, and hence the critical path, might be a little more difficult, but I still didn’t think it would be too taxing.

So when I came to teach my year 12 core maths class activity Networks I went with this “on node” method. I’ve never known a class get the hang of drawing activity networks so quickly, and as this was a core maths class, rather than an a level class, their GCSE grades are much lower – mainly Cs compared to mainly As.

They also didn’t have a problem with the early and late times or identifying critical activities. I much prefer this method.

It got me thinking about the validity of each method and whether either would be allowable in an exam. I feel that both methods are valid and that we should be teaching how to solve these problems using maths, so each method should be allowable, but I’m not sure whether the exam boards agree.

Close inspection of the specimen mark scheme for AQA core maths paper 2b certainly implies that either method is allowable:


However a look at the Edexcel markscheme doesn’t:


If you look at the question paper and answer book there is in fact the heavy implication that only one method will suffice, as there is an explicit mention of dummies and the network is already set up for this method to be filled in:



Do you have a strong preference to either method? Do you think exam boards should be prescribing which method to use? Do you have any further insights into which method the other exam boards favour or prescribe? If so, I’d love to hear about it.

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