FIFA and Really Challenging GCSE Physics Calculations

‘FIFA’ in this context has nothing to do with football; rather, it is a mnemonic that helps KS3 and KS4 students from across the attainment range engage productively with calculation questions.

FIFA stands for:

  • Formula
  • Insert values
  • Fine-tune
  • Answer

From personal experience, I can say that FIFA has worked to boost physics outcomes in the schools I have worked in. What is especially gratifying, however, is that a number of fellow teaching professionals have been kind enough to share their experience of using it:

Framing FIFA as a modular approach

Straightforward calculation questions (typically 2 or 3 marks) can be ‘unlocked’ using the original FIFA approach. More challenging questions (typically 4 or 5 marks) can often be handled using the FIFA-one-two approach.

However, what about the most challenging 5 or 6 mark questions that are targeted at Grade 8/9? Can FIFA help in solving these?

I believe it can. But before we dive into that, let’s look at a more traditional, non-FIFA, algebraic approach.

A challenging freezing question: the traditional (non-FIFA) algebraic approach

Note: this is a ‘made up’ question written in the style of the GCSE exam.

A pdf of this question is here. A traditional algebraic approach to solving this problem would look like this:

This approach would be fine for confident students with high previous attainment in physics and mathematics. I will go further and say that it should be positively encouraged for students who possess — in Edward Gibbon’s words — that ‘happy disposition’:

But the power of instruction is seldom of much efficacy, except in those happy dispositions where it is almost superfluous.

Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

But what about those students who are more akin to the rest of us, and for whom the ‘power of instruction’ is not a superfluity but rather a necessity on which they depend?

A challenging freezing question: the FIFA-1-2-3 approach

Since this question involves both cooling and freezing it seems reasonable to start with the specific heat capacity formula and then use the specific latent heat formula:

FIFA-one-two isn’t enough. We must resort to FIFA-1-2-3.

What is noteworthy here is that the third FIFA formula isn’t on the formula sheet and is not on the list of formulas that need to be memorised. Instead, it is made by the student based on their understanding of physics and a close reading of the question.

Challenging? Yes, undoubtedly. But students will have unlocked some marks (up to 4 out of 6 by my estimation).

FIFA isn’t a royal road to mathematical mastery (although it certainly is a better bet than the dreaded ‘formula triangle’ that I and many other have used in the past). FIFA is the scaffolding, not the finished product.

Genuine scientific understanding is the clock tower; FIFA is simply some temporary scaffolding that helps students get there.

We complete the FIFA-1-2-3 process as follows:

Conclusion: FIFA fixes it

The FIFA-system was born of the despair engendered when you mark a set of mock exam papers and the majority of pages are blank: students had not even attempted the calculation skills.

In my experience, FIFA fixes that — students are much more willing to start a calculation question. And that means that, even when they cannot successfully navigate to a ‘full mark’ conclusion, they gain at least some marks, and and one does not have to be a particularly perceptive scholar of the human heart to understand that gaining ‘some marks‘ is more motivating than ‘no marks‘.

Update: Ed Southall makes a persuasive case against formula triangles in this 2016 article.

7 thoughts on “FIFA and Really Challenging GCSE Physics Calculations

  1. dinocevolatti March 28, 2021 / 9:43 pm

    In Victoria, Australia, the ‘official’ approach to assessment is ‘wholistic’
    While your FIFA approach may be useful for assessment, you may find my ‘DIRTSCAN’ protocol useful for teaching. Admittedly, there is still some work to be done in supporting students to recognise when a question requires multiple chained stages but as you point out, the marks are usually a fair indicator.

    DIRTSCAN – A Scaffolded Problem-Solving Strategy for Senior Physics Classes

    • e=mc2andallthat April 2, 2021 / 4:05 pm

      I like this! It’s a clever mnemonic. It reminds me a bit of FRICCUS (Formula, rearrange, insert values, calculate, check, units, significant figures) which some teachers use at A-level (16+) in the UK. I tried using FRICCUS with 14-16 year olds a while back and — well, I think it tended to confuse most students more than it helped. DIRTSCAN looks like it would work well with older students.

      Although FIFA might seem incomplete, I believe the temptation to add ‘stages’ is probably counter productive — FIFA seems to provide ‘just enough’ structure for the majority of students (up to 16) to engage productively with calculation problems.

      Another issue that FIFA helps with (that doesn’t seem to be an issue in Australia as far as I’m aware) is that all too many students are utterly reliant on the ‘formula triangle’ method which replaces sensible transposition (whether with symbols or with numbers) with an ad hoc method that only works with three variable relationships(!)

      Best wishes and thanks for the comment.

      • dinocevolatti April 2, 2021 / 10:07 pm

        All true, except that while formula triangles aren’t the only method we use in Australia, many students here also struggle with transposition, which is a skill that we do need to teach them (although it is not explicitly outside of the Mathematics curriculum here).

        As a Physics teacher, I am not content relying on Mathematics teachers to do this. I agree that FIFA provides a suitable approach for younger students but as students approach more senior levels it is up to us science teachers to imbue mathematical techniques with the meaning, context and interpretative narrative needed for students to develop the skills through explicit teaching of our often hidden assumptions.

        Cheers and thanks for your great work …

      • e=mc2andallthat April 2, 2021 / 10:26 pm

        Thanks for the kind comment! I totally concur with your sentiments, BTW.

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