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Is Maths Hard, and in Particular, Is A Level Maths Hard?

When you are choosing your A Levels you should think about three main things – do you enjoy the subject, will it lead to a job of your choice and will you succeed and get a good grade in the subject? You also need to think about what a good grade would mean for you – for some people they need to get an A* or A, whereas other students can start their university degree quite happily with lower grades. In this article we are talking about A Level Maths – but the same general ideas can be applied in Scotland where the structure of examinations is different.

This brings us back to the question of whether A Level maths is harder than other subjects. You might hear rumours about A Level maths being hard, however the statistics definitely don’t back this up. In 2019, 41% of candidates achieved an A* or A in A Level Maths, whereas in A Level English Literature only 24% of candidates got these top grades. When we look at a wider range of grades, 75% of candidates achieved A*- C in A Level Maths and in English Literature this was 80% (not that different).

It is also important to note that A Level maths was taken by over 91,000 students in 2019, which made it the most popular A Level of that year. These figures show that it is possible for a large number of students to achieve good grades in A Level Maths, which is very encouraging for anyone thinking about choosing to study Maths at A Level. A Level Maths is highly regarded by universities, and employers are still saying that they need more people with maths skills, particularly as the economy becomes more focused on technology.

Is A Level Maths Suitable for Everyone?

Before you start a course in A Level Maths it is vital to have the right background knowledge and skills. Teachers will be able to give you advice about which Grade you need at GCSE to have a good chance of being successful at A Level. Despite this, there are still people who got a really good grade at GCSE who think that A Level Maths will be too hard for them. This is unlikely to be the case – if you have the right entry grades and are prepared to work hard, then nearly everyone will be successful in their A Level Maths. For mature students, it isn’t as easy to simply look at their GCSE grade and predict whether they will be able to succeed at A Level Maths – sometimes these students can make up for lost ground by hard work or the extra maturity they have gained in the many years since they last studied maths. And of course there may be some pupils who got a lower grade at GCSE due to illness or exceptional circumstances and are able to overcome this at the next stage. This is why it is so important to talk to the teachers who know you and ask their advice about whether they think you could succeed at A Level Maths.

Don’t Forget A Level Further Maths

In A Level Further Maths a whopping 50% of candidates got an A* or A in 2019. Obviously this is due to self selection – usually only the students who achieve most highly at GCSE go on to take A Level Further Maths. If you want to study a maths based course at university such as maths, physics or engineering, then Further Maths A Level will be beneficial and sometimes almost compulsory, depending on where you choose to study.

Find out more about degree courses and A Level maths.

Can Everyone Improve at Maths?

There are lots of myths surrounding mathematics and one of them is that you wake up one day with an inbuilt ability to do maths which is fixed and can never be changed. If you look around the world, then there are big differences in how countries perform when it comes to maths. This shows that there are lots of factors at play including culture, teaching methods and also the amount of work put in by students. (The Pisa world rankings for maths are currently topped by parts of China.) Let’s consider an analogy with athletics; more specifically, with the high jump.

Beating Your Personal Best

Is the high jump hard? The answer is yes if you are trying to break an Olympic record. Even if you can do it, it’s hard! On the other hand, if the bar is 2 cm off the ground it is easy, as long as you are able-bodied. Somewhere in between we all have a personal best height, different for each of us. Very often, with some effort, perseverance and training we can improve our personal best, and there is a lot of satisfaction in doing so.

Similarly in mathematics, if you are trying to prove, say, Fermat’s last theorem, it is hard; even if you can do it, it’s hard (Andrew Wiles, who proved it in the 1990s, took over ten years of dedicated effort to do so!). On the other hand, at the level of two plus two equals four, most of us find it easy. Somewhere in between we all get to a point where we find it hard; we all have a personal best where we start to struggle, different for each of us. However, as with the high jump, with effort, perseverance and training (education) we can often improve our capability. There is a lot of satisfaction in being able to understand something today that we didn’t understand yesterday.

Most real-world applications of mathematics don’t require the level of knowledge and understanding needed to solve Fermat’s last theorem. We can all raise our personal best mathematical “bar” to the point where we can make good use of our mathematical know-how.

Many people feel a real fear when it comes to mathematics and this can stop them from achieving their personal best. If this applies to you, then it is worth acknowledging this barrier and also seeking help from your teachers, friends and family. It can also be useful to try out different learning techniques such as watching YouTube videos about maths or spending time working in a group with your friends. A major area of breakthrough can simply be to realise that everyone can improve with a combination of hard work and the right teaching and encouragement – your attainment is not fixed. For some pupils they might just move up one grade (a major triumph), but for other students they can find that they can do more than they ever dreamed.

A Better Question – Is A Level Maths Harder Than Other A Level Subjects?

Of course some maths is hard – there are advanced mathematical proofs which are only understood by a small handful of people in the whole world, partly because they take many years of study to understand them. Even professional mathematicians don’t have time to learn everything! A Level Maths is definitely not in this category, as tens of thousands of students fully master the content each year, and student achievement suggests that Maths A Level is not statistically harder than other A Levels.  A Level Maths is not harder than other subjects at A Level – however this doesn’t mean you won’t have to work hard – of course you will. There might be times when you feel overwhelmed or confused, just like you would when trying to write an extended A Level essay on Shakespeare. Hard work and good teaching will overcome nearly all difficulties in A Level Maths – so feel encouraged to take a second look at A Level Maths – maybe it is for you after all?

Career Profile

Read this amazing interview with Martine Barons who studied A Level Maths as a mature student after being told at school that she wasn’t good enough at maths. Martine is now the Director of the Applied Statistics and Risk Unit at the University of Warwick and this is an incredible case of someone raising their personal best in mathematics way beyond expectations.

Image Credits

Featured Image “Mathematics” (CC BY-NC 2.0) by Shubhojit Ghose
‘Advice’ Image by Nicholas Jackson from Pixabay
Push buttons (CC BY-SA 2.0) by conskeptical