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Laboratory conditions: how to handle the end of modular exams

No matter how far ahead you get in your planning, you can always rely on a new government initiative to come along and turn all your schemes of work on their heads.

The current GCSE science curriculum is a perfect example. Having followed a modular system for many years, its recent switch to linear exams has forced teachers to rethink their approach. And now that the Department for Education has announced that all GCSEs will be fully linear from 2015, there is no choice but to commit to the change.

So how should you go about making the transition?

Helen Harden from the the Association for Science Education points out that the switch from modular to linear assessment raises a number of questions for heads of departments:

  1. How can students be supported in retaining all the necessary factual information over a two- or three-year period?
  2. How can student progress be tracked without externally marked modular test results?
  3. What is the best way to structure a two- or three-year course in order to maximise students’ development in understanding?

Of course, the answers to these questions should be determined on a best-fit basis for individual schools. But Harden suggests that the change to linear assessment can be exploited in several ways to improve student outcomes across the board, in science and in other subjects.

"Devote the early stages of the GCSE course to checking students’ conceptual understanding of the big ideas within your subject," she says. "This will highlight areas where further clarification is needed, allowing you to provide a solid groundwork that will help students to better understand more complex concepts later on."

As a linear scheme offers increased flexibility about what you teach and when, Harden also advises working with your department to create a curriculum route map that runs across the entire course.

"With careful structuring, this map will set out the best path for your students to retain factual information while allowing them greater scope to work on practical and enquiry skills," she says.

"You can also build in plenty of opportunities to develop whole-school literacy. Treat the learning of core vocabulary as one of the keys to success throughout the course. As this vocabulary becomes more familiar, an improvement in general literacy skills should follow. Ask a languages colleague to recommend good vocabulary-learning activities that could be transferred to your subject.

"And to support the development of maths skills, topics can now be sequenced to coordinate with the teaching of your maths department, so that students do not encounter new mathematical concepts in your subject before they have had an opportunity to get to grips with them in maths lessons."

The linear system is not perfect. Harden is quick to point out that summative assessment will still be needed to track progress for accountability reasons and that teachers may have to rely even more heavily on Assessment for Learning techniques to support this.

But if there is one thing that teachers are good at by now, it is adapting to change. And as science specialists like Harden see it, linear assessment is simply another frontier to explore.

To carry out a quick linear assessment health check, visit ASE’s Science Leaders’ Hub to download the questionnaire. Other materials in this section are freely downloadable for ASE members.

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