11 March 2016

Questions about Exercise Books - #mathscpdchat

To me, exercise books are a means to an end - they are merely a place for students to jot down workings in order to solve problems. It is the act of practising that's important, not the written record of that practice. I'd happily have my students do all their work on scraps of paper that they throw away at the end of the lesson.

"Oh but what about their notes? They'll need those for revision". I specifically tell my students to revise for exams by doing practice questions (past exam papers, workbooks etc). I tell them to watch a video or ask me for help with anything they get stuck on. I never tell them to 'read their exercise book' for revision. So what value is there in spending time and effort focusing on the organisation and presentation of classwork, if that classwork will never be referred to again?

I'm deliberately playing devil's advocate here, but I do think this is worth discussing. How important are exercise books in the teaching of mathematics?

Please join #mathscpdchat at 7pm on Tuesday 15th March to share your opinions.

I'm sure many of you will have a view on the importance of well presented exercise books. I expect that people will talk about students taking pride in their work and the advantages of a disciplined approach to setting out workings.

I'm sure people will also have views on when and where to give feedback. I only give feedback on homeworks and assessments - my homeworks are always on worksheets, meaning I never write directly in my students' exercise books. In fact I rarely look at them. Does it matter? Some #mathscpdchat participants may have views on the degree of independence we should give students - how much should we monitor their classwork books? Do you monitor the classwork of sixth form students?

The pictures below show a well presented exercise book and a poorly presented exercise book. These are from two very different types of student - I wonder what you can infer about each student.


If we care about presentation, how can we train our students to present their work well? At the start of each school year I set out my book presentation expectations with each class. What do you do?

How do you deal with worksheets? I use a lot of worksheets (mostly Don Steward) and I'm terrible at remembering to tell my students to stick their sheets in. Their books are bursting with loose sheets. Perhaps ring binders would be better.

On Twitter I've seen a range of ideas for exercise books including collapsible number lines, treasury tags and raffle tickets. Do you do anything that's 'a bit different'? Please share!

There are many interesting discussion points here. Please join #mathscpdchat at 7pm on Tuesday 15th March to share your opinions. I'd love it if you could share pictures of your students' exercise books too!





20 comments:

  1. When I asked Year 11 last year about what advice they would give to someone starting Year 10 (this was general - not just Maths); they said "I wish I'd stuck my sheets in"!

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    1. My sheet-sticking-in situation is out of control now! I can't stand losing valuable lesson time to passing round glue sticks etc, but in hindsight I think it's probably worth doing.

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    2. I have pencil bags attached to student desks with zip ties. Inside the bags are 4 different colored highlighters, glue sticks and scissors. Really helps as items students need frequenty are readily available - (don't have to pass out supplies).

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  2. I spent today's lesson doing revision questions with year 7 and was able to flip back to the work earlier in their book. I regularly get them making connections with earlier work and get them to use the dates as references. This helps them see the importance of keeping good notes and writing dates and titles on them. I make a pocket at the back of each book for bulkier sheets by folding the top corner of the back page down and sellotaping around the corner. Single pages are always stuck in on the day.

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    1. Nice pocket idea, so easy to do - I might borrow that!

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  3. I have my notes from my secondary school days in Ghana ... I always show this to a my class. When I was in school we had note books and exercise books. Teachers never/rarely looked at our notes - it was our responsibility (much like students in my sixth form). They did however mark our exercise books. Corrections were done in note books and they were self marked. If we want children to be independent and responsible, we must give them responsibility and onlwnership without the constant interference. I bet some pupils in my class took bad notes but they always borrowed notes for revision and we also had textbooks. How come we've come this far in an age of Internet, video tutorial and online mark schemes and yet our children are none the wiser?
    I say we interfere too much!

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    1. I'm inclined to agree that we sometimes interfere too much. I recently had a lesson observation with a Year 13 class and was told off for not looking at their folders regularly. I found this odd because I expect my Sixth Form students to take full responsibility for their own notes, like university students do. I've never looked at sixth form classwork. In marking their homeworks I often give feedback on workings and presentation but I think it's up to them how they organise their folders. They need to make their own decisions - it is their A level, not mine. Saying that, a quick glance at some folders suggests that some of my Sixth Form students are not as mature as I give them credit for.

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  4. I seriously doubt that there is a strong correlation between how tidy one's classwork is and how good a mathematician they are. An anecdote: at school I was a very well-behaved student (until I changed schools for Sixth Form and became a bit disengaged and rebellious in Year 12). During Key Stage 3 and 4 I got the top mark in my year group in every maths exam, so I think it's safe to say I was 'good' at maths. But I've never been particularly tidy. My handwriting has been messy for as long as I can remember, and my workings in maths are not as well ordered and well presented as they could be. In fact the only time I ever received a punishment at school was when I was made to re-do a maths homework because the teacher didn't like the way it looked. This punishment did nothing to improve my presentation skills. I'm good at maths, so does it matter if I'm a bit messy? I don't think so.

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  5. Hi Jo,
    I think our ''overreaction" to mess and the strive for tidiness stems from the fact that we expect the children to make use of their notes. It's hard to make sense a few days/weeks after if work is presented poorly. Here's the catch though ... They might take notes but is that what they use to revise? Do they use webnotes like Corbett /exam solutions and exam papers when revising?
    I find it incredulous that we are asked to monitor sixth form notes! Why should I? I am not the one writing the exam? We've taken the responsibility of learning from the students to burden the teacher.
    I agree with you poorly maintained folders does not mean they are bad at maths. We must enable pupils to become self reflective and independent learners. Let them take ownership of their learning right from year 7! I do not check folders and if I'm told to, I comply by asking the kids to bring in their folder ... Put it in order themselves and mark them themselves ... If they cannot make sense of it then there is a lesson learnt. I also encourage my pupils to use textbooks, mymaths and other online resources.

    I must say taking notes when I was in school was a necessity. We didn't have the internet back then and textbooks were rare so the only way to refere/revise was to take meticulous notes.
    The question is are our children in the same predicament?

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  6. I do Flashback Friday as a starter every week. This involves them going back over the last week's worth of work and reflecting on it. As part of that I ask them to read my feedback and act on it if required, stick any sheets in and underline titles and date work. It's not perfect but the presentation of their books has improved a lot.

    I agree with you that we shouldn't need to check their books (especially in sixth form) but nowadays there is a big culture of providing evidence of what you're doing in lessons and this is easier if their books and files are well-presented. I also think sixth formers need a bit of guidance early on about how to keep their files organised.

    Thanks for a thought provoking post.

    Darren @mhsgmaths

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  7. For some reason I sometimes get email notifications of comments but they don't show up on my post... I think it's a Blogger bug. Here's a comment posted by Andy earlier today:


    "There will be no correlation between presentation and ability but isn't it all part of the package to instil consistency into our lessons to make marginal gains on performance? Rules for uniform, behaviour, presentation, feedback, with both rewards and sanctions, gives a solid foundation from which to build? After the basics are in place, the teacher can be as maverick or as robotic in their teaching as they choose. I also tend to just mark homework and assessments, giving verbal feedback for classwork or written if I've got a few nearby students with the same problem. When my kids were at primary school, my first point at parents evening was to ask the teacher to stop working so hard and stop marking anything that moved!
    Back to presentation - great if you can get everyone on board but not worth losing sleep over."

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  8. I think you are so right with this. With the plethora of high quality revision material available either as revision guides you can pick up and read to the amazing resources now available online why do you actually need to record actual notes? Of course the issue will be with the SLT requirement that OfSTED will use the exercise book as a means of 'showing progress over time'. I suppose if your school results are great you can afford to just say 'look at RAISE'.

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  9. Unfortunately most of the "feedback stuff" we are required to do is not for the student's benefit. I get my students to "pink pen" check their own work. Peer marking with www/ebi comments for presentation is going to be both more "in the now" and hence more meaningful to the peer-author as it is done at the time the work was done rather than something that may or mostly likely not be read by my students some days later, I like the idea of Exit Cards the speakers at MathsConf6 talked about as a result of their Shanghai experience. Now, that short piece of independent work as a result of the learning taking place that lesson is worthy the comment from me. PS I keep a glue stick, highlighter plus pink pens on every desk, and my students glue everything in.

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  10. The chat summary is here: https://www.ncetm.org.uk/resources/48710

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  11. I worked with a Canadian teacher once who was amazed at our obsession with exercise books. She said in Canada the only work the teacher saw was assignments (ie homework) on loose sheets. The "scribble books" were entirely the responsibility of the students. I think that sounds amazing.

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  12. what colours do you feel should be used for certain areas for neater book work?
    e.g. red for margins and titles, black for subtitles and blue for answering. Do you believe there should be a bright colour other than the 3 main colours to work on top of the mistakes??
    Also, would you recommend gluing sheets in your book or bringing a folder to put them all in?

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    1. Apart from pencil for margins, I don't mind what colour my students use. In fact many of my students only have two pens in their pencil case! Blue or black for work and green for self or peer marking.

      Although using multiple colours would make their notes look lovely, I wouldn't want to slow the lesson down with lots of pen swapping. There's a balance between efficient note-taking and neat note-taking.

      I think sticking sheets in works well if you use A5 sheets or smaller, but if they're having to fold and stick A4 sheets then books get out of control! Sticking sheets in requires discipline - I really try hard to give my students a minute or two at the end of the lesson to stick sheets in but I sometimes forget. I've been experimenting with folders for the first time this year - see my post 'The Folder Experiment'.

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  13. Excellent topic to have a short review, i am certainly impressed while having a look on to it. id online

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