When you try your best (on calculation questions) and you don’t succeed… what you need is
Update: upon further reflection and discussion with our maths department, FICSU has evolved to become FICSSU. Explanation below.
Applying maths in science mainly involves calculations and there are several fine blogs about drill processes to help students work systematically through problems. All have their merits and drawbacks. I’m going to gently, but respectfully, criticise them now. The blogs are the inspiration for this piece so big thank yous to Gethyn, Pritesh and Tom for helping me think creatively.
The 7 step method from Michaela Science is a comprehensive approach but isn’t as easily implemented as approaches like FIFA (Formula, Insert, Fine tune, Answer) or EVERY (Equation, Values, Enter values, Rearrange, Yunits) as it doesn’t have a handy mnemonic to go with it. Pritesh’s blog is a fantastic read for how to implement any approach though – I highly recommend it!
FIFA maybe lacks the explicit detail of what might be required in terms of fine tuning and also has no reminder about including units (sorry Gethin). EVERY doesn’t have a crystal clear nudge to check for unit conversions which are very common on exam questions these days (sorry Tom).
The Birth (and subsequent evolution) of FICSU
One of my goals was to develop a greater cohesion, in terms of language, between our maths and science departments as this will help pupils see clearer links between the curricula and hopefully encourage them to utilise the knowledge learned in maths lessons within the context of science.
This didn’t fit the bill 100% as the maths folk revealed that, actually, they would prefer conversions before substituting into the formula.
We now have FICSSU which represents: Formula, Identify (values), Convert, Substitute, Solve, Units.
I did also want a catchy mnemonic so I had to use insert instead of substitute but… just imagine Chris Martin from Coldplay singing this to you “when you’re doing calculations in science, use FICS U”. One of my colleagues turned it into something sounding like “fick Sue” but she’s from the South East. Bless her. It’s also offensive to the population of Susans. FICSU, pronounced “fix you”, isn’t.
Why formula and not equation? I was observing a maths lesson a while back and the Y8 pupils were being challenged to learn the difference between equations, formulae and expressions: I realised quite quickly that I was going to learn something new as well! Up until this point in my career, I had used the terms equation and formula interchangeably but as soon as I learned the difference, I passed this on to the rest of the science department. We have been “mixing” with maths recently for CPD to make sure we deliver content in the same way. I now know a lovely way to teach standard form, for example. This makes a difference to both departments and, more importantly, our pupils.
Just for interest, I surveyed science teachers (assuming those who completed the survey were honest about their identity, I think a few maths teachers snuck in to see the results) and the variance in language used was scary but not surprising.
The vast majority of science teachers are either describing formulae as equations or don’t know the difference. I was definitely in this second category. Just under a third of respondents, from a considerable sample (n = 1115) are getting it right. So, what is the difference? Here’s BBC bitesize to help out… at least they concede it is difficult to tell the difference! Ultimately, formulae are a subset of equations which contain multiple unknown values.
Insert Identify values Here, I had to give in to the need for a memorable mnemonic. The term which I would prefer to use here is substitute, as it fits with the language used in maths (and our science staff will still say things like “now we insert the values, so we substitute them into the formula”). However, I will try to FSCSU isn’t that catchy! Fun fact here: once the values have been inserted, pending any conversions, the formula has become an equation as there is only one unknown variable to be calculated.
Instead of inserting the values, we now ask pupils to just identify them (the slightly jarring thing here is that they will hopefully already have identified the values in order to select the correct formula to use – but I still need it to sound like “fix you”). To begin with, this is similar to the Michaela way, pupils write the values out but as confidence and competence grows they can move on to just underlining the values with the question or diagram. This works well with BUG the question approaches to exam technique.
C: Convert units where needed
Unit conversions seem to have been the bread and butter of GCSE exam questions (on the new spec) when the formula is given for pupils to use, as is often the case on foundation tier. Drilling into pupils, over a 5 year period, that they need to check for unit conversions will make it a habitual act and reduce the load of many exam questions. The other aspect to make sure is well drilled is the fundamental knowledge of the standard units for each measure: if this is not secure, pupils won’t recognise where there is a need to convert. Then, obviously, you have to teach them how to convert! (I like to go with “as the unit gets larger, the value gets smaller and vice versa”).
This term, substitute, is much preferred to insert as it aligns with the way our maths department teach. Having the common language will assist pupils in seeing the links between science and maths and also increase the chances of them working through calculation problems successfully.
Repeat of the fun fact which is now struck-through in the defunct insert section: once the values have been inserted, pending any conversions, the formula has become an equation as there is only one unknown variable to be calculated.
S: Solve the equation
As mentioned before, the formula has now become an equation, and we are back on using maths terminology to help promote the transfer of knowledge form their algebra lessons. Solve is a common command word in maths and it should trigger an array of potential approaches to help pupils find the value of the unknown variable. Asking pupils to “solve the equation” is more likely to yield success than saying “work out the force”. Using the generic term, solve, and encouraging pupils to consider the equation as algebra should increase familiarity, and therefore decrease threat, leading to more confidence. If you are leading a science department and haven’t liaised with your school’s maths department on the approaches they use for solving equations… you really need to. I’ve noticed a significant increase in the confidence of out science staff when delivering maths heavy content since we have worked more closely with maths staff on joint CPD. (topics listed at the end)
Units! Aargh! How many times do you have to remind pupils to add units? I’ve noticed that it is significantly less often since running this approach over the last few months. Having an explicit reminder to add these really does make a difference. As mentioned before, knowledge of units of measurement is essential for success in science calculations and needs to be thoroughly drilled. Without this knowledge, pupils won’t recognise the need to convert or be able to give a complete answer to a question.
FICSU So far, after a few months of utilising, the staff in science are happy with it, the pupils are happy with it and also, the maths staff (that I have mentioned it to) are happy with it. My year 10 middle set have been working through the unit on Forces and Motion recently and they have become quite adept at using FICSU to successfully complete challenging calculations. As it is still relatively new, we keep reminding them of the mnemonic to hold in their mind, or even write out the letters of while working through the problem, as we build it into their repertoire of problem solving knowledge.
The evolution of FICSU into FICSSU has been successful. Science staff are confident in modelling the process (helped by our centralised resources with the stages set out) and pupils are able to recall the process when working through problems. The aim of this whole thing is to provide students with a metacognitive scaffold which will become less explicit as they gain expertise. When students write down a worked example, we insists they show all the stages. As we move through guided practice, we will ask for each stage to be shown on whiteboards so we can check for accuracy and any potential misconceptions. By the time students are working independently, to have to write all the stages out formally would take an excessive amount of time and reduce the number of examples they could get through. Instead, we ask pupils to keep the stages in mind and, as we circulate, we will use the FICSSU terms as prompts if they are struggling.
Many thanks for reading. As always, I can be found on the twitter for rebuttals or praise or whatever… @MrTSci409
CPD with maths dept so far: standard form, types of graph/chart, formulae/equations, language cohesion, solving equations/changing the subject/isolating variables.