17 February 2017

Working Well: C1 and C2

I'm feeling pretty positive about my A level teaching this year. I thought it might be worth sharing the things that I've been doing a bit differently. If you teach A level, please comment below or tweet me to tell me what changes you've made to your approach over the years that have had a positive impact on your students.

I teach at a boys' comprehensive school, having moved there from a girls' grammar school in 2015. This year I have my largest ever Year 12 class, with 27 students. A quarter of the students in my class got a B at GCSE, and I also have a few strong mathematicians who got an A* at GCSE and a distinction in Certificate of Further Maths. So the class is a very mixed group with varying levels of prior knowledge. Their target grades range from an A to a D. When I first started teaching this class they were very chatty. Because of the size of the class it felt more like Year 11 than Year 12. In October I introduced a seating plan - the first time I have had to do so for sixth form - and things improved immediately. The class has matured a lot since then and they are now focused and hard working. I'm hopeful for plenty of As this summer. The size of the class is not as much of a problem as I thought it would be - the main impact is on my marking workload.

Here are some of the things I have changed this year...

1. Modelling good work
In the first few weeks of Year 12 I made a big fuss about the presentation of work. I clarified my expectations by taking photos of good work and displaying these photos on the board when I returned homeworks. Students were visibly proud when I showed their work on the board.
The rest of the class then knew exactly what I was looking for. I gave detailed written feedback on the first couple of homeworks and it wasn't long before I was getting a good standard of presentation from all students, with well laid out workings and clear mathematical notation.

I recently marked a coordinate geometry homework and was pleased by how many students had made use of clear diagrams to solve problems - this was far better than in previous years. I think this improvement is a direct result of my continued modelling of best practice and making my expectations crystal clear.
2. Vertical binomial
This is a minor thing but I really think it made a difference... A couple of years ago I read a blog post which suggested a vertical layout for binomial expansions:
I taught it this way for the first time this year. I think students were better able to follow what I was doing on the board. Every students' expansions were set out vertically in their mid-C2 assessment, resulting in clear, systematic workings and accurate answers. I will definitely use the vertical layout again next year.
3. Formulae
In September I handed a 'test me' card to every student and told them to ask their parents, friends or siblings to test them on the quadratic formula at home.
The next lesson I had them line up outside the classroom and asked each student to recite the formula to me at the door! Good fun. 25 out of 27 got it right first time. I will use this approach again in future.

4. Grid method
I first wrote about alternatives to algebraic long division here, but I didn't teach the grid method properly until this year. I practised it extensively and decided that it is both more conceptually clear and more efficient than long division, but I was still nervous about teaching a method that is not widely taught. I took the plunge and was so pleased that I did! Even the weakest students picked it up immediately. I'm sure I'm seeing less silly mistakes than I used to with long division.
5. Logs
I introduced logs using the 'power' approach explained in this guide from James Tanton. It's a great introduction to the topic!

5. Independent study
I've always set an assessed homework for each chapter at A level. I give feedback and a grade for every piece of assessed work, which means I have a pile of sixth form marking to get through once or twice a fortnight. I don't do anywhere near this level of marking at Key Stage 3 or 4, but I think that regular feedback is vital at A level. My students are really good at doing their assessed homeworks independently and submitting them on time.

However, the big challenge is getting them to do independent practice (ie work that I don't mark) at home and during their private study periods. This year I issued a course booklet to my students which makes suggestions for how they should use these periods. I refer back to it regularly. At the end of every lesson I set a specific 'independent study' task and remind them that there should never be a time that they say they have no maths homework. In previous years I wasn't so specific about the exercises they should be doing but I've realised that more guidance is necessary for those who are less motivated. This is an ongoing struggle though - I still have some students who do very little independent practice, and it really shows.

6. Exam preparation
I was quite shocked last year when I discovered that one of my Year 13s hadn't done a single past paper in Year 12. Seriously, not even one. This is a huge contrast to my previous school where all of my students would have done every paper available.

This year I made a big thing about the importance of papers at Year 12 Parents Evening and gave my students a checklist of all C1 papers. I will make a similar list for C2 at Easter. If I had the budget I'd print packs of papers for my students to complete rather than get them to print their own.

After half term I will be available for weekly 'paper support sessions' after school where my students can drop-in for help with any questions they've found difficult.
I won't have much time for C1 and C2 revision this year but I do have a good bank of A level revision resources - I have posts about this here and here.

Still improving... 
I haven't yet worked out what to do with the students who are likely to get a U this summer. They attend weekly intervention after school but unfortunately it's not enough - there are significant gaps in their underlying knowledge. Ideas gratefully received! At my previous school I taught a girl who worked at a U all year and then ended up with a C, so I know it's possible for a student to turn it around.

The time pressure to get through all the content before the summer exams means teaching sixth form always feels like a race against the clock. I really enjoy teaching A level though. It's a shame that this is the last time we'll be teaching C1 and C2. I will miss these modules! It has been such a pleasure to teach them.


  1. Love the vertical binomial. Never seen it before and it's so much clearer. Thank you for these interesting ideas.

    1. Thanks for the comment! Yep, the vertical binomial layout is really good. I'm pleased I discovered it!

  2. Great post, many ideas resonate with us also. Same issues. Whole school is developing a programme based on "The A Level Mindset: 40 activities for transforming student commitment, motivation and productivity" ISBN: 978-1785830242, might be worth a look.

  3. Corbett maths' c1 5a day are great for little and often holiday revision

  4. A really interesting post. Some of my teachers are having the same issue with regards to struggling students who we feel are on for a U at AS. These are usually students who we had reservations about with regards to work ethic and ability from GCSE. At the moment we are doing lots of extra sessions but it is soul destroying when they come out with poor results in their mocks given the number of hours we have put into helping them!

    Out of interest how do you grade your homework assessments? We use 80% = A, 70% = B etc but as the boundaries fluctuate so much (we are on AQA) this seems less and less accurate.

    1. I agree about the time investment. I'm hoping that the FMSP will run some revision courses in the Easter holidays again so I can send some of the weaker ones there for some intensive revision - maybe a change of scenery will help them.

      I grade A = 80%, B = 70% etc. I'm Edexcel for A level and hadn't noticed the grade boundaries varying much away from that but I will have a look at recent boundaries now - interesting point, thanks. I do sometimes feel uneasy giving As on homeworks when I'm not convinced that the student is really working at an A. In-class assessments continue to be more helpful but we just don't have enough teaching hours to do one per chapter, so homeworks will have to do.

    2. Matthew Forrow6 March 2017 at 22:50

      We've moved away from the A=80%, B=70% grade boundaries as in the last couple of years they seem to have shot up - particularly at the bottom end. In fact in C1/C2 over the last few years its been much closer to 40 than 30 (last summer's C2 was 41 marks - 55% for an E). We now use 40 marks=E, then add 6 marks for each grade, going up to 64/75 for an A for all internal exams. This does mean that we give a lot of U's and E's out though!

    3. Interesting, thank you. I think I may be too generous with my grading. Something for me to think about.

  5. Joanne, I too love the vertical binomial, and I think the course booklet is an excellent idea. Glad to know there are others out there having the same issues with their classes and really helpful to hear what is working for you. Thank you for the post!

  6. I love posts like these where teachers are so open about their practice. I really should try and write one of my own.

    As for grading, I'm similar to Matthew although slightly simpler. I add 5% to all the boundaries, so 85%=A, 75%=B etc. More because if they 'only' get 80 then that's borderline A/B and certainly not indicative of being on track for an A.

    1. Thanks Stuart, very helpful. I wonder how the boundaries will work for the new A level.