This article is designed to help students, parents and teachers when faced with the situation where a student has fallen behind with the A Level Maths (or Further Maths) content they are being taught at school.
Firstly, it is important to say DON’T PANIC! This situation is a common one and there are tried and tested methods for overcoming this which I will now outline.
Spotting the Signs
When a student falls behind, ironically, parents can be the last to know about this unless they spot the signs. Often, parents have close to no knowledge of A Level Maths so may find it difficult to even realise that there is an issue. The people best placed to spot these signs are the student’s A Level Maths teacher or tutor (if they have one).
However, there is a definite way (as a parent) to find out whether a student has fallen behind: simply ask them (or their teacher/tutor) how their A Level Maths is going and analyse their response. There are two ways that students react to being in this situation: one is stressing, the other outright denial that there is a problem. As an experienced A Level Maths tutor and classroom teacher, in each of these situations you can expect to observe the following:
- Student is stressed about feeling behind:
Acknowledging that there is a problem is a positive, as it shows willing to improve. However, this can become unhealthy when a student starts to dwell on the fact that they are behind in their A Level Maths, spending more time worrying about how far behind they are rather than catching up. Students, parents and tutors can often feel powerless when trying to intervene and try to break the habits that have got the student to this point.
- Student is in denial about there being an issue:
In this case the student (at least consciously) doesn’t acknowledge the fact that they are behind or that there is even a problem. In such cases it may be that the school have communicated a poor test result or expressed their concerns about the quality or lack of volume of work being produced. Often, the denial is masking some deeply held anxieties about addressing the issues that the student subconsciously knows exist.
Addressing the Situation
When it becomes apparent that a student has fallen behind in A Level Maths, a calm and measured approach is required. It is very easy to make things worse if a teacher, tutor or parent approaches this in the wrong way. The key thing to remember when initially broaching this topic is to remain calm. The student should not be made to feel guilty that they have fallen behind or this could result in them shutting down communication and trying to go it alone; this would be a disaster as they clearly do need help at this point. The key questions to ask the student to begin resolving the issue are:
- What has caused you to be in this situation? Common responses to this could involve students having de-prioritised their A Level Maths workload in favour of other subjects, an inability to organise themselves, or sometimes a breakdown in the professional relationship between the student and their classroom teacher.
- What support do you feel you need? A common answer to try and steer the student towards is to initiate a dialogue with their classroom teacher to initiate a plan of action to try to catch up. If it is an option, this is also where an A Level Maths tutor could help.
- What do you feel you need to do differently going forward? It is important to recognise that there is a change in learning behaviour needed from the student but getting them to play a part in identifying what changes are needed and how they will implement them is important in helping them “buy-in”.
How to Catch Up Effectively in A Level Maths
As an A Level Maths and Further Maths tutor with more than a decade of tutoring experience, I have encountered the above so many times in my career and it has taken many years to find an approach that works. The key points to take on board are
- Don’t panic and don’t overwork
Catching up is a slow, methodical and gradual process. To keep on top of the work currently being taught in class and catch up concurrently is a big ask. Many students (sometimes guided – or rather misguided – by an A Level Maths tutor) often make the mistake of focussing on plugging historic gaps in their mathematical knowledge. This, in my experience, is the worst way to go about things as it is, frankly, too much work and too overwhelming a prospect to clear such a long to-do list. There are very many resources out there that can help you along the way. I recommend The Ultimate Study Tool for A Level Maths, a tool I have designed to help students identify and fill any gaps in knowledge by means of a three-step learning model (Learn – Practise – Revise).
- Focus on mini short term goals
Trying to plug all historic gaps in knowledge neglects the importance of keeping on top of the material being learnt in class and the psychological impact on the student of continuing to not understand what they perceive their peers can understand. Instead, I recommend the student (with or without the help of a maths tutor) finds out in advance from their teacher what they will be learning in the next week and ask what prerequisite knowledge is required. The student can then direct their efforts to what is going to help them in both the immediate and long term both in terms of mathematical knowledge and mental wellbeing.
- Get on top of the workload and stay there
To get back on track and rediscover the joy of being able to understand again what is going on in A Level Maths lessons will give a massive psychological boost to the student and this will have a massively positive impact on results. If this approach works in getting you back on track, continue doing it! Obviously there will be other gaps in knowledge that surface along the way but these can be addressed and rooted out by effective revision (click here to see my article on how to revise A Level Maths).
Most students will at some point feel they have falling behind but the impact of feeling this way can be minimised. I hope in sharing some of my experiences from my time teaching and tutoring A Level Maths that I have been able to give you some strategies to try and help you get back to where you deserve to be.