Dear Uncle Colin,

I’m struggling with A-level. I used to love maths when I did [one board] at GCSE and now I’m doing [another board] at A-level, I don’t enjoy it any more – when I see a question, I can’t even tell what it is they’re asking. My teachers are no help and I can’t afford a tutor. What should I do?

-- Struggling To Understand Calculus Kwestions

Hello, STUCK!

That doesn’t sound like a great situation! Let’s start by breaking it down into things you can change and things you can’t.

You can’t (presumably) change your teachers, your board or your financial situation, so let’s forget about those. Complaining about them isn’t going to help any more than complaining about the weather — don’t waste energy on that.

Things you can change… well, from what you’ve told me, the best problems for you to address are a) enjoying maths and b) understanding what questions are asking.

To get back to enjoying maths, I recommend a few possible things: you can try to help some GCSE students (or even people at the same level as you) understand things better. You can do some non-academic maths (try Chris Maslanka’s puzzles in the Saturday Guardian, or any of his books, or maybe read/watch something accessible about the history of maths.

(If you’re looking for other books to buy, AS- and A-Level Maths For Dummies is extremely enjoyable and Cracking Mathematics might tick the non-academic maths box.)

As for understanding what a question is asking, the key element is to read the question carefully — rewrite it if you need to — and make sure you have picked up all of the information. Ask yourself what kind of answer they want — is it an equation? a number? an explanation? a proof? A good exercise, is whenever you’re faced with a question you’re completely stuck on, make a note of it. Write down what the question was, why you were stuck, and (the really important bit) what you should have done. The following time you’re stuck, check your stuck-notes and see if there are any hints in there.

Hope that’s at least slightly useful. Good luck!

-- Uncle Colin