Which Maths Subject should I choose?

Which VCE Maths subject should I choose?

 

Every year I get asked the same set of questions:

“Will I need Methods for __________?”

“Is it worth doing Spesh if I want to study _________?”

“Should I do Further even though it gets marked down?”

So without too much ado, let’s jump in and figure out which Maths is the best for you!

What is involved in each subject?

Usually the most common question. Fortunately, each subject is pretty clear cut about what sort of content needs to be covered, and they change very little. Even with the curriculum overhaul at the end of 2015, the content of the Maths Units has only changed in small amounts in the last 10 years (with the exception of the structuring of Units 3&4 in Further Maths). So let’s have a look.

General/Further Mathematics

Structure

General/Further Maths have the greatest focus on maths concepts that would likely present some practical applications outside of a scientific environment. Units 1&2 build on the skills developed throughout the middle school years, but in a manner that steers you towards application rather than pure mathematics. The topics cover basic algebra and it’s applications (mostly problem solving using algebra, which is surprisingly useful), geometry (shapes and trigonometry), graphing (using linear graphs to map out relationships such as profit vs sales), and a strong emphasis on statistics.

Units 3&4 build on these ideas even more strongly, with quite a particular structure. The course is made up of a large Core section involving statistics, and also a Financial Maths section. Both of these topics are compulsory in Further Maths, which is a great positive change to the previous curriculum where Financial Mathematics was an optional module (and one that many schools chose not to pursue, for some strange reason).

Each school then also chooses two modules from a list of four: Geometry & Measurement, Graphs and Relations, Matrices, and Networks. Each school decides which two modules from this list to teach. This decision is usually dependent on the strengths of the teachers in question.

Applications and Question Styles

There is a huge emphasis on using the calculator effectively in these subjects. Beyond that, there is an overall theme which directs students to go beyond answering a simple Maths question. Students are expected to explain what the concept actually means in more “human” terms, rather than just a numerical answer.

By the end of Units 3&4, nearly every question is a worded question that expects a sentence rather than a number to answer properly. This is considered the “easiest” of the Maths subjects in Year 12, which may be technically true in terms of Mathematical difficulty. However, Further makes up for that by challenging understanding and interpretation skills at every turn.

Uses

To make up for its unfortunate reduction in study score, Further actually provides a range of real-world skills, the most important of which is obviously the financial topics covered in the Core section. It’s the best Maths to take if you don’t plan to study Maths or Science beyond VCE.

Mathematical Methods (CAS)

Structure

Methods is usually considered the harder Maths, while Specialist Maths treated as a forbidden dungeon that only the most Mathsy of Maths brains may enter. Which I guess has some measure of truth to it, but it’s often taken out of context. Methods is much closer to what is usually coined as “pure maths”. There are much more theory and (funnily enough) many more methods to learn.

It is also often harder to draw associations to practical applications from concepts learnt in Methods. This isn’t because there is less use for the topics, but because the skills you learn in Methods are supposed to be a precursor to higher study (which is where you start to see the practicality). It’s like trying to draw associations to your favourite book straight after you learn the alphabet. You’re just not there yet! That doesn’t mean what you learn isn’t useful, but it does mean that you might have a hard time seeing the benefit if you aren’t planning on studying Maths in more depth.

Question Style

Methods has much more focus on problem solving and using the skills you learn in unfamiliar contexts. Questions in Term 3 can become unsolvable if you don’t have the ideas from Term 1 down pat. Everything is interconnected. There is a huge reliance on algebra, and graphing becomes quite important as a problem-solving technique.

A large part of what you will study also involves a variety of different functions, their graphs, using them in basic modelling questions, and of course the all important calculus. Sure it sounds scary, but it’s actually the best bit about Methods. You’d be surprised how much fun it can be (showing my inner nerd here).

Content

Having said that, Methods is probably the most content heavy of the three Maths subjects, with a huge range of interconnected topics that do require quite a decent time commitment to master. Once you have a good handle on all the content, Methods still presents the unique challenge of problem-solving questions. It’s probably the most likely to throw you “curveball” questions, in both SACs and exams.

As you near the end of the year, the amount of practice exams you go over becomes quite important, as you become exposed to as many different styles of questions as possible so you can be prepared for basically anything. The maths in the exams is surprisingly not usually terribly hard, but coming up with what you need to do in the first place is a much bigger challenge.

Uses

Methods is a great subject to keep you engaged if you love problem-solving and brain teasers. As long as you have a decent foundation in algebra, you should be able to cope with the content. It is a subject that focuses on problem-solving above almost anything else.

Specialist Mathematics

Every time I mention this subject, I see people cringe. Something about this subject is just profoundly terrifying to everyone who considers studying it. And while mathematically it is the most complicated of the three Year 12 Maths subjects, if you are comfortable with learning the ideas it can often be less stressful than Methods. Many students have told me in the path that they struggled more with Methods because of the problem-solving style questions that dominate Methods.

Content & Structure

“Spesh” teaches very advanced topics, but as such doesn’t really have the room to twist up those concepts the way Methods does. It is also a little more disjointed than Methods, which can be an advantage. While Methods is thoroughly interconnected, Specialist Maths has more independent topics that can be mastered even if there are weaknesses in the previously covered material.

Don’t get me wrong, Specialist is an intense, full on Maths subject that requires a serious commitment. It also has even less real world practical application than Methods. If Specialist Maths was renamed to Pre-Engineering Maths, I doubt many people would argue.

Uses

 

Outside of a strong Maths or Science career path, it probably doesn’t have much of a place. Many students take on Specialist Maths purely for the boost in the ATAR ranks, which could be a blessing or a curse. While it’s true that even an ordinary score can be boosted substantially, it can take a good commitment to achieve even a pass result in this subject.

So which one should I pick?

There is no perfect, all-encompassing answer. It depends on what you want to study, how much you like/dislike Maths, and what your other subject commitments are. Still, I have put together a bit of a summary on each Maths subject to help make the decision easier.

 

Maths Subjects Comparison Table

Make sure you take the time to consider each option and pick the best one for you! If you later change your mind, it can be difficult to change subjects while still in VCE, but most Universities will offer some kind of bridging course if you realise too late that you don’t have the prerequisite for a course. It can take a bit more time, but you can sleep a little easier knowing you haven’t locked yourself out of your dream course.

Best of luck!

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