Teaching Applied Maths? – You might want to read this

I used to think that Applied Maths was one of the very few subjects where problem-solving was the name of the game.
I used to tell my students that it may well be the only subject where they weren’t allowed to come out of the exam claiming that the questions were unfair because they had never seem them before.
It was also a subject where I could never confidently predict that an A student would get an A in the Leaving Cert exam – after all, the questions are simply unpredictable.

Back then I used to teach Applied Maths in probably much the same way as  everybody else – spend most of the time teaching from one of the textbooks and towards the end of sixth year revise using exam papers.

Results were ok but nothing spectacular

Then, while browsing through some very old papers to see how the standard of questions had changed over the years I spotted something unusual. Almost every question which appeared in recent years was similar to at least one other question on an older paper – the natural conclusion being that if you cover all the old papers along with the recent ones you really should see very little new material in the leaving cert exam.

I can’t imagine I’m the first to make the connection between current and past papers, and for all I know experienced teachers were probably saying this for years to anyone who would listen. But for me it’s news – and the more people that know it then the more likely it is that we’re all on a level playing pitch.

The old exam papers that I came across were left by my predecessor (Dave Clarke) and the solutions were all provided by another colleague  when I first started teaching the subject (Ciaran O Sullivan). The questions were converted to word format and the solutions were scanned in and saved as pdf files.

I next took all the questions and grouped them into similar themes and arranged them in order of difficulty, so for just about every type of problem there are a couple of example questions.

Using narrow margin and size 12 font (no spacing) each topic still comes to between 30 and 40 pages, so it’s important that if photocopying these for your students you choose‘1-sided to 2-sided’ and  ‘back-to-back’ on the photocopier. This reduces the pages needed by a factor of 4. In many cases I have put in some extra introductory questions from Ordinary Level, but usually you can go straight into Higher Level questions within a couple of classes.

For many questions I have a section where I offer hints on answering the questions for students who wish to have a little help without looking at the solution outright.

Initial results indicate that this new approach is working.

Last year the class results were the best they have ever been since I started teaching the subject.

I’m still the same teacher – not great, not bad, probably somewhere in between, but I believe passionately that we need to share our ideas and resources, not keep them locked up for just our own students.

So whether you are a student or a teacher you fill find everything that I have used online:
Exam papers and marking schemes are here (note that the official marking schemes only go back to the year 2000. There are another 3 or 4 more official schemes but for some reason these are not available online so I hope to scan them in and upload them over the next week or two.

Worked solutions going back to 1970 are here. Note that these are not complete but as we answer the missing questions in class I will scan in the solutions and upload them.

The notes that I have compiled for each chapter are here.

If you are reading this as a teacher then please join our discussion group (see the homepage to forward your email address) –and if you encounter any problems just drop me a line and let me know and we will do out best to resolve it.

It took a little time to put all of this together  (actually it took a lorra’ lorra’ time) but the point is this; I can’t think of any other attritute I posess apart from these notes which might be responsible for the impressive results so if you are a new teacher you have nothing to lose by downloading them and having them as one more resource in your armoury.

The irony here is that the Minister for Educaiton and Skills has recently announced that he is not happy with the fact that so many Leaving Cert exams are predictable in nature and has put pressure on the Exams Commission to change this, so I hope I’m not letting the cat out of the bag here.

There was also a suggestion in some quartes that the subject itself may get subsumed into Project Maths and so disappear altogether.

That would be a shame.

One other thing. Congratulations to one of last year’s students – Stefan Oehler – on receiving a gold medal for achieving the top mark in the country. Next year this could be one of your students.


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