An online problem-solving booster

Thursday 25th March 2021

Is it possible for online events to replicate face-to-face events when student interaction is the essence?

The answer to the above question is, it seems, “yes!” But first... some background.

A number of years ago, we devised a structure for a problem-solving session for Year 12 students. The essential components are:

  • a group of Year 12 A level Mathematics students covering all levels of attainment
  • a group of trainee maths teachers (referred to as Associate Tutors, or ATs, here)
  • a set of genuine mathematical ‘problems’ – as distinct from rountine ‘questions’ where the means of solution is apparent, and familiar to students.

These sessions have been successful because the focus is on problem solving, rather than revision, and because students work in small groups, collaborating closely with each other and their AT mentor.

The challenge this year was to use Zoom to replicate all the positive features of the above activity online. A good deal of advance thinking was required to do this: how to allow for collaborative working; how to ensure safeguarding protocols were upheld; how to maintain pace and focus.

The key to success – and it was a successful event, as the feedback shows – was to give the ATs freedom to devise their own ways of working. The problems from previous years were overhauled to ensure accessibility for all students but, beyond that, we trusted our ATs to come up with creative ways of enabling collaborative working. Desmos and shared whiteboards, coupled with a sensitivity towards encouraging students’ confidence in speaking online, meant that the vast majority of students were able to get involved in productive ways.

The uni reps were really good – they didn't jump straight into the deep end of geometry like I thought they would which made me feel less nervous, but then they also challenged us and let us work together.

Even the Dragon Maths competition at the end was replicated in breakout rooms with just as much pace and enthusiasm as with the ‘real’ version. The one regret I have is that I didn’t put the first half of the competition at the start – it would have smoothed the path to student interaction and required less ‘ice-breaking’.

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I enjoyed how the event was ordered in a way that I was excited for the competition at the end and I feel that the classes at the start really rejigged my memory!

We know we’re on to something when we are seriously considering making the online version a fixture in the calendar!

By Martin Bamber

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