Is Your Teenager Starting Higher Maths?

Diane Duguid

The level of difficulty from a very teacher-led style of maths in National 5, up to a more independent way of studying at Higher can come as quite a surprise to many students and as a parent, you may be wondering how best to support them through this transition.

The key to it all is understanding and empathising with what your teenager is going through and realising they’re not going to be able to develop this new study skill overnight.

What Is This Step-Up Like?

Imagine your teenager is going to learn to drive in the safety of a simulator, and the test at the end is at Nat 5 standard.  One lesson would focus purely on accelerating and braking in a straight line.  The next maybe would be all about how to change gear; another perhaps, on practising when to use mirrors, or on how to steer the car.  Each skill in the simulator ‘driving test’ would be marked separately, the overall score added up, and you don’t need 100% to pass.

Now imagine they’ve achieved that pass and have been approved for ‘Higher’ driving.  This is the equivalent of getting into a real car, on live roads, with a driving instructor by their side who’ll help out with reminders of their ‘Nat 5’ skills, but mainly will be teaching all the new, complex, aspects of driving in a rapidly changing environment.

Understandably, this can be overwhelming for your teenager at first, but with practice, applying all the elementary driving skills becomes second nature and the focus begins to move to a higher level of driving capability.

How Can I Help?

Firstly, talk about this transition, and while you may not grasp the content or the ins and outs of the course, you do understand it’s a big leap in study skills and you appreciate that they’ll need some time to adjust.

Don’t panic and rush to find a tutor – your teenager is on the cusp of developing their own style of study techniques; the ones they’re going to need in any further education path they choose and that will be valuable later in life.  This is an intellectual maturity characteristic and has to be something they do for themselves.

Help them move from the, ‘I can’t do it!’ stage to beginning to analyse where their skills gaps are by encouraging them to ask for themselves, ‘what maths do I need so I can start the next line, how do I get to that maths, what do I already know?’

And finally, give them enough space and time to find their way through this early, difficult, stage, knowing you’ll be behind them every step of the way.


The aim is for the students to be fluent in using all aspects of the Nat 5 course to easily apply them to the Higher standard questions. We would recommend they hold onto a summary of all their Nat 5 teaching and notes as a quick reference.

Most school-issue textbooks have a small revision section at the beginning of each chapter; encourage your teen to not only attempt all of this work, but to be genuinely honest with themselves and look for ways to fill any gaps that may become apparent.

A convenient and immediate solution to finding the right quality of material is our teacher-created ILS Higher Maths course.  Every topic has a Prior Knowledge section re-teaching the relevant Nat 5 material, detailed explanations of how and when it is applied to Higher, and a Resources section linking to third party sites offering exactly the right standard of practice questions.  

While your teenagers may have just entered the Higher Maths level and are feeling overwhelmed now, encourage them to revise what they do know over the summer. A month or so into the new term they can identify exactly which areas they’re struggling with and can use the ILS app to support them further with their learning, without the need for expensive tutoring.

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