National Senior Mathematics Challenge

Every year in November the A level Mathematics and Further Mathematics students of MPW sit the Senior Mathematics Challenge. The challenge is organised by The UK Mathematics Trust, which is based at Leeds University. It is held across the UK on a single day each year, and is sat by many thousands of students.

The Senior Mathematics Challenge is a test comprising 25 multiple choice questions. Each question has five possible answers. Correct answers are awarded four points, and each incorrect answer is penalised one point. The score starts at 25, so that even a completely wrong set of answers will not add up to a total negative score. The maximum possible score is 120 points. The challenge is 90 minutes long and is invigilated under examination conditions.

The answers are coded by the students onto a machine-readable sheet, and these answer sheets are then sent to the UK Mathematics Trust for marking. Two weeks later the results are received, followed by the various certificates, several weeks later. There are three levels of awards: gold, silver and bronze. All of the raw results from across the country are collected and weighed together, and the threshold scores for each of the three awards are then set.

Two more thresholds are set as well, and students who achieve one of these are invited to a follow-up test. The lower of these two thresholds, which is usually a little higher than the threshold for the gold award, merits an invitation to the Senior Kangaroo Challenge. Achieving the higher of the two thresholds merits an invitation to the British Mathematics Olympiad. However, the Olympiad (in any country) is only open to citizens of the country, so a very high achieving MPW student who is not a British national does not qualify for the Olympiad. Instead, such students are also invited to the Senior Kangaroo Challenge, along with the second tier of high achieving students.

The questions in the Challenge are varied. Some require methodical work to find a solution, while others rely more on intuition. In most cases two or even three of the five possible answers can be quickly dismissed as incorrect, but finding the correct answer requires significantly more work. All of the questions rely on knowledge acquired by students during their secondary school education in Mathematics, so there is no reliance on A level material. However, students need to know almost everything they have ever learnt about Mathematics, and the questions do not betray the area they belong to or the method required for solving them.

Therefore, the Senior Mathematics Challenge represents an experience that the vast majority of students find very difficult to cope with. Throughout their secondary education students are trained to answer questions that are well defined within specific topics and are usually broken down to stages that lead them gradually to the solution. Most of what they are trained to do in their GCSE examinations is demonstrate their ability to use specific techniques in situations that clearly call for them.

In the Senior Mathematics Challenge the students are asked to pool all the mathematical knowledge they have acquired and combine it in original and often surprising ways. Original and creative thinking is not what they are normally asked to do. Doing this 25 times in a row, under time pressure, is therefore very demanding. But for many of the students of MPW the challenge is much more difficult. Although the Mathematics involved is equally difficult for all students, native English speakers at least have the advantage of being able to quickly understand the text of the questions. Many of our students come from outside the UK, and are not native English speakers. The proportion of foreign students studying Mathematics is even higher than across the college as a whole. These students must mentally translate the question first, word by word, then put together the individual words in a way that makes sense, and only then start to work on the mathematical side of the problem. It is therefore even more impressive that our best performing students in the Senior Mathematics Challenge are often not native English speakers.

This academic year 107 students were asked to sit take Challenge. Out of these, 90 students actually took it. Seven of them achieved the gold award: Wai Leng (Emily) Im, Yuxuan Wang, Xiao Yao Luo (pictured), Murphy Guo, Yoonji Jo, Ryo Suzuki, and Seung Yeop Han.

23 students received the silver award and 22 achieved bronze. All seven gold award students qualified for the Senior Kangaroo Challenge, and two of them – Yoonji and Yuxuan – would have qualified for the British Mathematics Olympiad had they been British nationals.

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