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Exam board tips: how to help your students prepare for GCSE science 2018

This summer, students will sit the first GCSE science exams using the new 9-1 grading system. As part of our series of blogs written by GCSE exam board experts, the head of science at AQA shares his insight into how teachers can help students prepare

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This summer, students will sit the first GCSE science exams using the new 9-1 grading system. As part of our series of blogs written by GCSE exam board experts, the head of science at AQA shares his insight into how teachers can help students prepare

What are some of the most common errors that students make in GCSE science?

A common error students make is writing a description when they’ve been asked to explain something. A description alone will not get any marks.

Students need to make sure that they read the question carefully and identify the correct command word. Underlining key words and circling command words can help students to focus on answering the question they’ve been asked, as can annotating the question. You might have already modelled this process with your class in the past, but don’t underestimate the importance of revisiting it in those last lessons.

Is there anything new to look out for in this year’s exams?

The application of knowledge and understanding of science is particularly important in the new GCSE: 40 per cent of the marks will be for applying knowledge.

This means that some questions will be set in unfamiliar contexts, asking students to link together ideas that aren’t linked on the specification. From the Year 10 mocks that AQA ran last year, we know that this is something students really struggle with. So, make sure you’re not just teaching the content of the specification – get your students equipped to be able to demonstrate that they can apply that knowledge in unfamiliar contexts in the exam.

Many questions will also focus on investigative skills and how well students can apply what they know about the use of scientific apparatus and techniques to practical situations, again often in new contexts.

Why do they need to know so much about practical work for a written exam?

Practical work forms a key part of the specification. Exam questions will draw on the knowledge and understanding that students have gained through their practical activities. Across the science GCSEs, 15 per cent of the marks will draw on students’ practical experiences with other marks being assigned to the “working scientifically” criteria. Students need to have a really good understanding of the practical work they’ve done and be able to use it in the exam.

How can they do this?

Focusing on the reasons for carrying out a particular practical technique, or the use of a particular piece of apparatus, will help students to transfer their skills and understanding to new contexts. As part of your revision it would, therefore, be useful to explicitly revisit some of the techniques and equipment that you have used in practical activities throughout the GCSE course.

Understanding the subject-specific language that applies to practical work will help also help students to answer these parts of questions, so make sure that their knowledge of scientific vocabulary is up to scratch, as well as their understanding of concepts.

Proper use of appropriate scientific vocabulary is an important part of being able to demonstrate and communicate understanding of scientific ideas and techniques in all of the new science GCSEs. The ‘working scientifically’ section on all of the new GCSE science specifications indicates how this and other aspects could be assessed, so make sure you’re really familiar with this section across all of the sciences.

What about maths? Is this still important?

Students need to demonstrate their maths skills in science contexts. Encourage students to use techniques and skills they’ve developed in maths lessons when working in science. The specification indicates the mathematical skills which students are required to demonstrate.

Is it crucial that they are able to remember equations?

Yes. Recalling an equation without needing to make use of it would be part of the 15 per cent of marks allocated to recall alone; students will also be asked to recall and apply the appropriate equation to answer a specific question.

Julian Clarke is head of science at exam board and education charity AQA. You can find teaching resources on AQA’s GCSE science page.

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