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Facing maths fears in a jiffy

Andrew Potter, OU Staff Tutor in Maths and Statistics Author: 

Andrew Potter is a Staff Tutor in Maths and Statistics at The Open University in Scotland

Did you know that a ‘jiffy’ is an actual unit of time, meaning 1/100th of a second? Or that in France, a pie chart is sometimes referred to as a 'camembert'? Or that a 'googolplex' is a number so large that there aren’t enough atoms in the universe to write out all of its zeros?

Making mathematics engaging, accessible and relatable is something we’re passionate about at The Open University. 

This week for Maths Week Scotland 2020 we’re celebrating the importance of maths in our everyday lives, bringing maths learning to people’s homes across Scotland through a series of free online events suitable for ages 12 and up.  

The events will make maths real through exploring questions such as: What does it mean for money, populations or a virus to grow exponentially? Does the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil set off a tornado in Texas? How did prisoners of war communicate with each other? And how can simple frieze patterns of numbers reveal some of the most fascinating puzzles and beautiful images?

At the OU we help people across Scotland overcome their maths fears, such as empowering people to manage their household budgets or to help children with schoolwork. Man struggling to help boy with maths homework

An OU study1 found that despite 84% of UK parents admitting that maths is the most important school subject to help in everyday life, almost a third are unable to help their children with maths homework beyond the age of nine. 

Adding and subtracting without a calculator is a skill one in four parents wouldn’t be able to pass on. More than a third of parents couldn’t teach their children how to split a bill, and almost half of parents couldn’t help their children work out the best value items in a supermarket. 

We have a range of free, short, online courses for tackling maths fears, available on our free learning site OpenLearn. 

If maths feels like a mystery to you, the 24-hour OpenLearn course Succeed with Maths 1 begins by looking at how numbers are put together, before guiding you through how to use percentages, fractions and negative numbers and their use in real situations.Woman with frustrated expression, sitting at a desk with a laptop, papers and a calculator

The Everyday Maths 1 course uses examples and interactive activities to help learners to, among other skills, run a household budget. 

And for those parents who are struggling to help with the homework, there’s even a free online Teaching mathematics course; twenty four hours of study designed for non-specialist mathematics teachers of 8 to 14 year olds. 

We have an open access policy at the OU which means that no qualifications are required for most formal courses. This gives people an opportunity to refresh and develop their maths learning whatever their previous educational experience. 

Our Access module in science, technology and maths is a great place to start. The course materials are prepared with new learners in mind and the subjects are introduced and explained at a comfortable pace for easing back into the study habit. 

If you live in Scotland and have a personal income below £25,000, then you may be eligible to study an OU Access module for free2. You might also be eligible to study an undergraduate level mathematics course for free, with a Part-Time Fee Grant, such as a Level 1 course in Discovering mathematics, Essential mathematics, or Introducing statistics

Discovering mathematics student Murilo de Melo Reis said: 

"Mathematics was never my thing, but the material and support were so good that it made maths learning enjoyable. I had a really kind tutor who motivated me a lot…For the first time I can say I enjoyed learning mathematics. For those who think they might fail in maths like I did, this module will give more self-confidence.” 

Maths Week Scotland logoWith the OU in Scotland you can enrol for one module at a time, choosing whether or not to build up a qualification, such as a certificate diploma or degree in mathematics. OU study is flexible, as you can study at your own pace, wherever and whenever fits with your life.  

The events at Maths Week Scotland are a great way to start re-discovering and exploring the world of mathematics with the OU from the comfort of your own home. 

The Open University events as part of Maths Week Scotland are taking place free online between 29 September to 3 October. They include ‘Growing Exponentially’ (suitable for ages 12-18 years), ‘Chaos Theory and the Butterfly Effect’ (ages 13+), ‘Codebreaking & Cryptography’ (separate sessions for ages 12-13 years and for 14+) and ‘Navigating by Numbers’ (for ages 14+).  

More information at

1Research carried out with 1,019 UK parents of children aged 6-16, by the OU’s Business Schools research centre, The True Potential Centre for the Public Understanding of Finance, 2018.    

2Eligibiity criteria to study an Access module for free includes not having completed one year or more on any full-time undergraduate programme, or 30 credits of OU study.



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