How collaborating with your maths colleagues will help your students transfer knowledge 

Maths teachers at the top of a giant calculator helping Chemistry teachers to climb up it with a red rope that looks like a trend line from a graph

Source: © Dan Mitchell/Ikon Images

Do the maths and you’ll see that collaborating with colleagues in the maths department adds up to student success

We have probably all experienced situations where students have struggled to transfer their understanding of maths to their science learning or have not applied their mathematical understanding to science specific questions.

Recent examiner’s reports, from all examination boards at all public exam levels, highlight the difficulties students have with maths in science. This includes drawing and interpreting graphs, significant figures, standard form, calculating percentages, and analysing and evaluating data.

Audit the science department

There is an assumption that science teachers are confident and competent in teaching the mathematical components of the science curriculum. However, even if we are confident in our knowledge, we are unlikely to be aware of current strategies being used by our maths colleagues. The use of different methodologies in the two subject areas can generate confusion for students.

Consider the confidence levels of staff when teaching maths in science. Are they aware of curriculum expectations? Do they know what maths skills need to be covered? How confident are they when teaching this knowledge? Consider taking these three steps to boost confidence and knowledge. 

  • Audit staff confidence in teaching all the components of the mathematical requirements for 11–16 science.
  • Can staff identify where in the curriculum they explicitly teach this knowledge?
  • Determine if CPD is needed and, if so, how and when this can be delivered.

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A table to help you assess your confidence in teaching all the components of the maths curriculums for 11–16 year olds as MS Word or pdf.

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Liaise with the maths department

We often discuss maths in science with our maths colleagues. We may highlight our frustrations with students’ inability to transfer key knowledge from maths to science, discussing lines of best fit, significant figures or standard form.

These conversations must be followed by concrete actions which improve student outcomes. Liaise with maths colleagues to discuss specific elements of maths in science and how to teach them.

  • Do we teach students in a different way?
  • Do we recognise that key terms may have a different meaning in the two subjects?
  • Are we aware of common mathematical misconceptions our students have?

We know that vocabulary can have a different meaning in real life, and even between sciences. But vocabulary can also have an alternative meaning in maths. For example, the ASE’s guide, The language of mathematics in science reminds us that ‘the term “line” has a more precise meaning in mathematics than the way it is often used in science. In mathematics, a line (and thus a line of best fit) is, by definition, straight. In science, however, it is quite common to talk about “straight lines” and “curved lines” (which in mathematics would be called “lines” and “curves”).’ This means that, in science, students may draw a straight line of best fit, even when a curve may be more appropriate.

These differences can also impact on tier two language. In maths, a factor is an integer that divides equally into a selected whole number with no remainder. This may explain the difficulty students have in accessing questions, such as, identify a risk factor for Type 2 diabetes or suggest one factor that is limiting the rate of photosynthesis. How do we ensure staff recognise these potential areas of confusion and adapt their teaching accordingly?

Organise a meeting with the head of maths to consider the following:

  • Compare the science and maths schemes of work. Who teaches what and when? Who teaches it first? What content is not covered in maths which we need to cover in science?
  • What are the common mathematical misconceptions?
  • What vocabulary is used in maths which we should also use in science? What vocabulary has a different meaning in maths and science?
  • Generate an action plan for change, prioritising the coming academic term. What changes are going to be made? Who will make them and when? Are there any CPD implications?

Read more about cross-department collaboration

Align the departments

Consider what concessions each department can make  to provide a smooth transfer of knowledge between departments and across year groups. How can you align? What changes need to be made?

It may be that your maths department doesn’t cover graphical representation until year 8, S1/2 and second year (in Scotland and Ireland respectively). In addition, they may only be covering linear relationships at this stage. In science, we may ask students to plot a graph of data from an experiment at the beginning of year 7. This means science is likely to teach line graphs before maths. It may also be the first time students use graph paper, as many primary schools and maths departments use blocked paper. If science teaches a maths skill first, how should we approach it? What key knowledge and pedagogical strategies do we need to bring from the maths curriculum?

Through active and sustained collaboration between the two departments, teachers will be more confident teaching maths in science

When aligning teaching, consider:

  • What weaknesses have been identified in maths and in science assessments?
  • Are there any common misconceptions we should be aware of? How can we make sure we are not perpetuating these misconceptions?
  • Would it be helpful for a maths teacher to start the lesson and a science teacher to complete it?
  • Could maths teachers use a science-based starter or retrieval practice activities?
  • Could maths make use of science specific examples?
  • What type of graph paper will you use across departments?
  • What calculators does the maths department recommend? How and when are students trained how to use them?

How effective has the change been?

Once we have adapted our schemes of learning to better teach maths in science, we need to know how effective the changes have been. Are there maths in science questions in your formative and summative assessments? Does maths in science feature in your retrieval practice? Are students able to transfer their understanding between maths and science?

Through active and sustained collaboration between the two departments, teachers will be more confident teaching maths in science. Students will be clear on what knowledge to use and when.