This article is part of a series providing school students with evidence-based advice for choosing subjects in their senior years.
Maths prepares students for the ultimate test — life beyond school. As maths is everywhere, regardless of where life leads you, the more maths you learn, the better prepared you may be to understand the world.
The Australian Curriculum intends to provide some consistency in what is taught at school, regardless of where you live. Maths is one of 15 senior secondary subjects.
However, states and territories maintain responsibility for local education. So there is variation in the range, focus and difficulty of maths subjects offered.
How many senior students do maths?
It’s not compulsory to study senior maths across Australia, but most year 11 and 12 students still do so. Available data suggests just over 70% of year 12 students study maths, with slightly fewer girls doing so than boys.
However, enrolments are on the decline. For instance, between 2001 and 2013 the proportion of students studying the high school certificate in New South Wales, who did not take a maths subject, tripled from 3.2% to almost 10%. NSW has announced it intends to make maths mandatory in years 11 and 12 to arrest the decline in enrolments, but there has not yet been a timeline set for this move. Victoria is also widening its maths offering to senior secondary students.
What subjects are available for me to choose from?
The Australian Curriculum describes four senior secondary maths subjects, with each organised into four units, usually studied over the four semesters of year 11 and 12.
They are essential mathematics, general mathematics, mathematical methods and specialist mathematics. In Queensland, these are the subject names used. However, there are different names for different types of maths in each state and territory with some being more closely aligned with the Australian Curriculum than others. For example, in NSW the equivalent subjects have completely different names and also arrange content and concepts differently.
But all maths subjects have similarities when it comes to the knowledge and skills students will develop. They also teach students how to think, reason and communicate mathematically, describe and analyse data and evidence, and use digital technologies.
Essential mathematics (most closely aligned with foundation mathematics in year 11 in Victoria) focuses on students developing and using maths knowledge and skills to investigate realistic problems. The subject or subjects include the study of data and statistics and financial modelling. Students selecting these courses typically have work or a vocational education and training course in mind once they leave school.
General mathematics (most closely aligned with general mathematics in year 11 and further mathematics in year 12 in Victoria) includes the study of financial modelling, geometric problems, and statistics. These are areas many of us encounter in our work and life. Students selecting this subject typically plan to go to university and study a course where maths may have practical and/or theoretical relevance. General mathematics is a pre-requisite for courses like aviation, ICT, and health science at Swinburne University.
Mathematical methods is where students are introduced to calculus. This is the study of relationships and change. For instance, is the spread of a particular virus increasing? Can we describe trends and patterns observed and make predictions about the future? Can we describe the total number of cases over a given time period and assess the impact of government intervention?
Students are also introduced to statistical analysis, which is describing and analysing phenomena involving uncertainty and variation. Students who choose mathematical methods are likely intending to study maths-related subjects at university such as science, engineering, medicine and IT related degrees.
Specialist mathematics should be taken together with mathematical methods, as it deepens and extends key ideas studied there. Students who do specialist mathematics and mathematical methods (or extension and advanced mathematics in NSW) intend to do maths related courses at university.
When we were teaching in school, many students studied two maths subjects in year 12 (mathematical methods and specialist mathematics, or mathematical methods and general mathematics). Everyone had different ideas on which maths they found the hardest.
Which one should I choose?
Parents and teachers frame subject selection around the question, “What are your plans for the future?”
Having an idea what you want to do once you finish year 12 will determine your interest in maths and motivation to learn it.
The future is uncertain with study and career pathways that are dynamically evolving. Research shows a 15-year-old today could have 17 different jobs over five careers in their lifetime. Maths is essential to a range of study and career choices — including vocational trades, nursing, teaching and mathematical sciences.
If you do choose maths, you should choose the maths subject that interests you and offers the best preparation for your destination beyond school, be it work, TAFE or university.
Unsurprisingly, studying senior maths at school increases your success when studying university maths units and courses. Some universities have pages where you can easily search by maths subjects rather than course.
School careers counsellors are an excellent resource for advising students on possible study and career paths and what maths subjects you may need.
It can also help to speak with maths teachers you know and trust, and family members and friends who have taken different subjects. Some people say some maths subjects are harder than others, but others argue it really depends on your interests and effort to take advantage of available opportunities to learn.
Be wary about the university and vocational education and training prerequisites and recommended subjects. Often students see a subject is recommended but not required, and opt not to take that subject.
However, when they enrol in the TAFE or university course in question, they might find a maths equivalent to a year 12 course is more or less squashed into a first semester unit. It is often easier to learn this content in year 12 with the support of a dedicated maths teacher than to try doing so in one semester in a new environment with unfamiliar teachers and peers.
What should I know about scaling?
In calculating the ATAR, all subjects are scaled to account for the competition in the subject — not the level of difficulty. Maths and languages have additional scaling.
Scaling is to even the playing field, and students who take more challenging subjects usually get scaled up. Specialist mathematics is taken to be more difficult than mathematical methods which is taken to be more difficult than general mathematics. For mathematics, the subjects are compared against each other as well as against all other studies.
For example, in 2020 in Victoria, an initial study score of 30 was scaled to 27 in further mathematics, 34 in mathematical methods and to 41 in specialist mathematics.
Maths has never been more important or visible to making sense of the world. We believe there is a maths for every student and a choice that keep your options open for the future.
Read the other articles in our series on choosing senior subjects, here.