GCSE science: help students master extended responses

The extended response is often tricky for students, writes this AQA expert, but there are simple approaches to simplify the process

Elise Reece


Students have always found extended writing in science exams challenging – and this summer’s exams were no different. 

There are a number of reasons for this, including the fact that students need to use the correct scientific vocabulary in their writing; a range of command words are used so students need to understand what’s expected for each of these. 

Questions can also be set in an unfamiliar context, requiring students to identify the science which is being assessed by the question and the understanding they need to apply in their answers. 

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But extended response questions are used across all science exams, so it’s important that students develop the necessary skills and strategies so they can approach and answer this type of question effectively.

So how can you help them? Practise is key, so model and discuss approaches to answering the different types of question in class and then give students numerous opportunities to practise and embed these skills.

Here are some strategies you can use to help your students master these areas:

Scientific vocabulary

Students need to use the correct scientific language precisely in their writing when describing and explaining phenomena. 

Examiners’ reports and material from feedback meetings are useful resources in for understanding the common mistakes students make when using subject-specific language.

Command words

Students need to master the full range of command words so they can answer the question correctly. Some command words are simpler to understand than others, such as plan or calculate – but compare, explain and evaluate are asking students to do very specific things. 

If students don’t understand what these words mean they might write a description for an answer rather than an explanation, and they won’t access all the marks.

Unfamiliar contexts

It’s really important that students know how to apply their knowledge and understanding in new contexts, but we’re still seeing a weaker performance in this area.

It’s worth spending time to make your students recognise the science behind the question if it’s set in an unfamiliar context.

Pause and plan

As well as learning and practising their approach, students need to develop the confidence and exam techniques to tackle these questions under exam conditions.  

We often see students rush in without pausing to read the question carefully and thinking how to formulate their response before starting to write.

Use the questions as prompts

Questions aren’t meant to catch students out. The wording is often a good guide to what the examiner is looking for, so encourage your students to look at the questions as prompts.

For example, question 2 on our GCSE Physics Higher Tier Paper 2 2018 is about a student carrying out an investigation to determine the spring constant of a spring. Students are given a data table and asked to describe a method the student could have used to obtain the data.

They are told to include in their answer any cause of inaccuracy in the data, and they also have the option to draw a labelled diagram.

The simple data shows a clear pattern of the linear relationship between force and extension. This is a required practical and the table of results will be familiar to students who have carried it out.

By splitting the question into three clear steps it helps the student structure their answer:

  • Describe a method just to obtain the data. 

  • Write about what might cause the data to be inaccurate – so focusing on mistakes made when measuring.

  • Give the option to draw a diagram – this is how they would have done this write up in class, so they don’t need to write a lot or worry about expressing themselves clearly.

Exam strategy

Here’s a checklist you can share with your students to put all this guidance into practice:

  • Look at the clock before you start – especially on the Foundation tier – so you can see how much time you have.

  • Read the question really carefully and highlight keywords which will remind you what you have to cover.

  • Think about the command word so you’re clear what you need to include in your answer – for example, evaluations need a judgement.

  • Think through the answer before you start writing, or you may write lots of irrelevant things if you rush straight in.

  • Use all the prompts given in the question - they’re there to help you understand and structure your answer.

  • Write in bullet points, draw diagrams, or put things in a table if it helps. As long as the answer is logical and relevant then marks can be awarded.

  • When you’ve finished, check the question again to make sure you’ve covered everything, especially if there are bullet points in the question - these are there to help you structure your response.

  • Always have a go at these questions – everything relevant you write could gain you marks.

  • Don’t write too much - we suggest two lines per mark for average-sized handwriting.

Elise Reece is one of AQA’s curriculum managers for science

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