Specialist maths, the demon child of the infamous Maths C. The “hardest subject ever”, I prefer to think of it as the BEST subject ever. This is my comprehensive guide to choosing Spec, what to expect, and some study tips to help you get the most out yourself.
Choosing SPEC as a subject.
For those of you in year 10, or even possibly year 11, and considering taking Specialist Maths as one of your senior subjects, there are some big considerations to be made. First and foremost, the advice I was given at school by both teachers and older students was to make sure you have a reason for taking every subject that you choose. The best reason to take Spec is that you’ve enjoyed maths throughout high school, and that you want to continue to develop your maths skills. I’m not going to beat around the bush, it’s a difficult subject at times, possibly the hardest, but if you’re not afraid of committing a bit of time and effort to studying it then you’ll get a lot out of it. If you enjoy maths like I do, then Spec may just be your favourite subject (shocking but true).
Now to address the other elephant in the room,
Yes it’s true, spec has been in the top 3 highest scaling subjects for the first two years of the ATAR course in Queensland, and this is likely to continue. You can find the 2021 ATAR report here. Not only that, but most courses at most Universities will give you 2 ATAR adjustment factors for passing Spec. Now this sounds great in theory (and it is) but I must warn you, if maths isn’t something you enjoy, and you think that your time to rewards ratio won't be too flash, then don’t take the subject. I’ve seen people both drop the subject halfway through year 12 and play catch up on everything else, and people attempt to stick it out, and not get what they expected. Bit of a downer, I know, but just be super careful that you’re picking the subject for the right reasons, and that you’re prepared to commit the time and effort.
What to expect
Now onto the fun stuff, as I just mentioned, Spec is a lot of work. There will be times that you might wanna rip your hair out (been there), there might be times you are so confused that you question everything you’ve ever known (been there too), but there’s nothing like the that feeling of satisfaction when you nail Implicit Derivation, Vector Calculus, or Proof by Mathematical Induction, and seeing the fruits of your labour will make it your favourite subject, just like it was for me.
There are a lot of different topics, which is great!!! It keeps it interesting. In year 11 you’ll get introduced to Combinatorics (basis for probability), Vectors, Mathematical Proofs, Complex Numbers, Trigonometry, and Matrices. This sounds like a lot, but it’s a great base for the year 12 topics, (and a headstart on some y12 methods and physics topics). Come Year 12, you’ll tie vectors and matrices together, and see their power. (I would recommend watching The Matrix, just because it's a cool movie). You’ll do some more work on complex numbers and Mathematical Induction, before getting thrown in the deep end in unit 4. Unit 4 Spec would easily have been the most valuable unit of study for me in year 12, as you’ll do everything you need for methods calc in maybe the first 2 weeks, and then move on to some really interesting further techniques and applications. If you have a decent Calculus base, this will be some of the most rewarding work you do all year, with the added bonus that every time you study for spec, you’re also studying for methods! Please don't not study methods, but you’ll see what I mean when you get there. You can find the QCAA syllabus here, and there are also some resources such as ATAR Notes which some people swear by. I wouldn’t give ATAR Notes a blanket recommendation for everyone as it does come at a cost and obviously everyone has their own study methods, but like I said I had plenty of mates at school who bought them and loved it.
Yep it’s a lot of work, but I’m certainly not trying to scare anyone away from taking it, it was my favourite subject, so if you’re willing to commit time and effort to the subject, I couldn’t recommend it more highly.
Now for the good stuff, these are my top 4 tips for Spec.
- Keep Up Each Week
Depending on your teacher, and the textbook your school uses, each week you’ll likely move onto a slightly different/ new topic, often you’ll do each exercise in a chapter each time you have a lesson. If you’re busy through the week like I was, you aren’t always able to finish off a 20 question exercise each afternoon before your next lesson the next morning, so I used to set myself the goal of being up to date by the end of each week. I wasn’t a perfect student and I didn’t do every question, some days I fell behind, some weeks I fell behind, and that happens. Year 12 can be a slog at times, and learning abstract content for the first time when you have all sorts of stuff on your plate can make it super hard, I get it, I’ve been there, but my goal was to hit each monday being up to date with the content. This is a super specific short term goal, thats easy to measure and easy to hold yourself accountable to. I found this to be the most useful thing I did; when you enter revision time, you want to be revising, not learning topics in isolation for the first time.
2. Study in a group
There's time for personal study at home, so when the opportunity comes to put your heads together in a group, take it! I found this worked best when we had a small group of about 4-5 people and we were studying exam style, Complex Familiar and Complex Unfamiliar questions. If one of your mates sees a question in a slightly different light, they might be able to trigger a thought in your head, which when you tell the group might lead someone else to solve the question. Suddenly there's a new style of question that when it comes up in an exam you’ll be able to nail. It feels like much less of a grind when you’re in a group, and if you’re able to keep focused you’ll get hard stuff done, and have a bit of fun while you’re doing it.
3. Ask hundreds of questions
If you’re in class and you don’t understand what the teacher said, ask. If you’re studying with your friends and they say something, ask what they mean. If you're at home and you see a question that gets you absolutely stumped, send a photo to one of your mates, ask next time you have class, take it to your trusted KIS tutor who will be more than happy to help. There’s absolutely no stupid questions in Spec, and the more you can expand your mental bank of questions, the more likley you are to nail that last question on the test.
4. Last but not Least, Practise how you Play.
To use a classic sporting reference, practise how you play. When you’re in study mode for internal or external exams, practice how you play. Sit down in a quiet place with no music, no phone, no chewy, no diffuser, no pets; and just do a practice test. The most valuable skill to have in Spec, and even methods, is to be able to see a question that you have no idea how to approach, relish in your confusion, try a few different methods, and finally nail it. As your teachers should tell you, the CU questions aren’t the bulk, so it’s also good to practise skipping questions when you’re spending too much time on them, doing the questions you can, and coming back for another crack at the end. Simulate exam conditions, and you’ll thank yourself for how comfortable you feel in the real external.
Here’s the thing, Spec is the hardest subject, but it's the best. It scales like there's no tomorrow, it’s super rewarding, it's a huge flex, and it’ll make you feel like you can achieve anything 🚀
Written by KIS Academics Tutor for QCE Specialist Maths Ned Woodgate. Ned is currently studying a Bachelor of Medicine/ Bachelor of surgery at JCU and is well on his way to becoming a doctor. You can view Ned's profile here and request him as a tutor.