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Would more hours of GCSE maths lead to better outcomes? – Geoff Wake

16 May 2024

By Geoff Wake, Professor of Mathematics Education, Observatory for Mathematical Education, University of Nottingham.

In a recent conversation about whether more instructional time allocated to study for resit GCSE maths would be a good thing, I was asked: "What does the research say?”

It’s a difficult question to answer – as are many questions in educational research. Context is everything, and I don’t know of any studies that have investigated this particular issue in the context of GCSE resits.

A few days earlier, the Polish government had announced some new regulations relating to homework for younger students. Pupils aged 7 to 9 can’t be given compulsory homework, and from age 9 to 14 any homework must be optional and not count towards a grade. It seems that in Poland, at least, more time spent doing maths is not necessarily considered beneficial, at least for these younger students.

As a researcher, I would need to design a specific study that would attempt to answer the question about how more time in mathematics class leads to better marks and grades in the specific context of GCSE resits – in colleges. But that would take time.

One possible source that we might turn to is Professor John Hattie’s work that synthesises evidence from thousands of studies to provide insight into which factors have the greatest impact on student learning. In total, in his most recent work, he identifies 252 factors that he works with to consider their different levels of impact. He does find that increased time studying does have a positive effect on learning outcomes, but the effect is only moderate.

There are other changes that we might make that would have more impact for students. For example, “teacher collective efficacy” has four times the effect that more time studying provides.

Our own recent research in the context of GCSE maths resit groups did throw up some rather intriguing outcomes that have some relevance. We found that our carefully designed programme of a mastery teaching approach had most impact on students on students from the most deprived backgrounds. Our Mastering Maths programme resulted in a gain in these students’ marks equivalent to their having two months extra learning. It’s worth noting that these students make up about half of the resit cohort.


Well, we don't know. But let me speculate. Our approach is fundamentally to work with teachers in professional collaborative groups – confirming Hattie’s contention that “teacher collective efficacy” has substantial impact. Our Mastering Maths programme also promotes students experiencing periods of collaboratively working on mathematics. This means that they, together, are actively engaged in thinking and working mathematically. This leads me to hypothesise that it’s not about extra time per se, but how exactly the time is spent.

Students need time to work mathematically in ways that allow them to be thinking through their own mathematical understanding and often their misunderstandings. Activity that challenges them to do this without teacher instructions and assistance is important. Talking through methods of tackling problems with other students can be significant in allowing them to master, maybe for the first time, mathematics that may be straight forward for us, but a potential stumbling back for them.

In our work, both with teachers and students, collaboration is key. Time spent exploring knowledge with peers, whether it be teachers’ professional knowledge or students’ understanding of mathematical concepts, appears to much more effective than time spent on less productive activity.

The easy answer when wondering how to improve something is to throw more time into doing the same. Our research, and that across many other studies, suggests that it’s much more complex than that. Colleges and their classrooms are complex social learning spaces, and to ensure our GCSE maths students do better, requires high-quality interventions that seek to improve both teaching and learning in ways that work together.

Geoff leads the Mastering Maths research study that seeks to provide research evidence that the programme can be implemented at scale to improve students’ GCSE scores. To take part in this important work join the study: more information can be found here.

The views expressed in Think Further publications do not necessarily reflect those of AoC or NCFE.