Was the Criticism the 2015 higher maths paper faced justifiable

When I was in fifth year at High School in 2016 I studied higher mathematics and the legacy left behind by the terrifying 2015 Higher Mathematics paper still lingered throughout the school and to a vast extent the entire country.


With all the stigma circulating around the paper I decided to look at it, to see exactly what it was that was responsible for the social media revolution against the SQA. I read the questions and thought to myself if I was in the shoes of the pupils who sat this exam I would have been horrified to be faced with this paper. The exam was “wordy” and didn’t specifically tell you what you had  to do or what formula to use. It instead required you to demonstrate your understanding of the content of the Higher Mathematics course to try and solve the problem and to figure out which equations you needed to use. Looking at this now from a different perspective, I believe that the way most pupils were taught was through relational understanding this, is when the pupils know a process and how to use it but not why it is used. As a result of this they have difficulty in answering questions that do not tell them what process to use or say a question in an unfamiliar way. However, there is also conceptual understanding   and I believe that pupils who scored well in this paper had a conceptual understanding of mathematics meaning that they understood not only the how but also the why of mathematics and as a result of this they knew exactly how to apply it even when it wasn’t completely obvious and required them to problem solve.


As someone who needs to know why we are doing a certain process in maths I recently looked over the paper again and thought to myself yet again. If I was faced with this in an exam situation I would be panicked. However as a result of the understanding I have now developed through studying the why and not just the how of mathematics, I think I would of scored reasonably well. Looking at the paper from a different perspective as a student teacher rather than as a pupil I now believe that the SQA had the right idea. The majority of people on the (MA) Education course  concurred in a lecture that they wished the education system was designed to enhance the understanding  of the subjects  studied and not just about remembering processes in order to pass exams. So as I look at the paper now keeping these desired motifs of education in mind I would now deem the paper as an ideal paper for meeting this criteria. Whilst I agree it was a difficult paper to sit, especially as it was the first year of the new Higher paper, it actually requires pupils to have an indepth understanding of mathematical processes and I believe that is what we want our pupils to develop, the skillset to do.


To conclude I believe that the Higher Maths paper of 2015 was significant in highlighting that as a nation our pupils do not have a conceptual understanding of mathematics and therefore when they are faced with problems where they are required to think about what they are doing, then they struggle. In my opinion this does not equip pupils with the skills they need for work. So how do we move forward? I have used the dreaded exam paper as a rational behind my future way of teaching mathematics, I am not going to rush pupils through work just, so I can tick off the boxes in the CFE experience and outcomes. Instead I am going to spend the time to allow my pupils to develop not only the how’s but also the whys of mathematics. This in turn I believe will change pupils out look of mathematics as it will make more sense to them and will hopefully result in them studying maths further along their education journey and thus further prepare them for the world of work and daily life.



 Ali, A. (2018). Exam board admits Higher Maths exam was ‘too hard’. [online] The Independent. Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/student/news/sqa-exam-results-2015-exam-board-admits-higher-maths-paper-for-scotlands-students-was-too-hard-10436713.html [Accessed 29 Sep. 2018].


Skemp, R. (2009). The Psychology of Learning Mathematics. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis.


1 thought on “Was the Criticism the 2015 higher maths paper faced justifiable

  1. Jonathan Brown

    This was a very interesting reflection Cameron; I enjoyed reading it. You might be interested in researching the work Jo Boaler did with Phoenix Park & Amber Hill High School, you can find this in her book ‘The Elephant in the Classroom’. I wonder how students from Phoenix Park would have performed in the 2015 Higher Maths paper?


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