Don't mix words and symbols

14th January 2005 at 00:00
For many students revision is, at best, a glance at incomplete notes, tortured reading, or staring at previously unopened texts a short time before the exam. The trouble is that advice about revision programmes - which may be the same in every area of study but which could also be contradictory - might be perceived as "teachers going on" and produce the opposite to the desired effect.

All subject teachers, including those from the three sciences, should work alongside form and year tutors, learning mentors and Senco colleagues to develop an integrated revision strategy for any cohort. Each can then concentrate on the requirements of their specific subject rather than general planning.

If you issue copies of the specification or prepare a simplified student-friendly version, each student can check the work they have covered and, more importantly, find out where their own records are and if they are complete. Together with students, look at the rubric on the papers and maybe use something similar on regular tests so they become familiar with the demands of the papers and the question types.

Have a collection of past papers and, if you can, "cut and paste" questions according to topic and tier. There are so many resources on the internet and on awarding body websites that this should be relatively straightforward (see also and schoolsgCBCbitesize and the review of these resources in TES Teacher, pp14-15, October 29 2004, archived at There are "end of topic" tests, glossaries of words, summary tests, simple recall tests, quizzes, word searches and crosswords. You should be able to find something that's new to the students.

Interactive whiteboards and computers have opened a multitude of opportunities, using "touch and drag" to label and annotate diagrams; from sequencing statements related to a procedure or body process to highlighting key words in a text or a question. You can also prepare model answers to questions in the format they appear on the paper in front of the students' eyes. It should be possible from all of these available resources to meet the demands of any preferred student learning style, be it visual, kinaesthetic or auditory.

Reading the question and answering the question set, rather than a question expected, is crucial. Get them to understand the demands of the words, such as the difference between "suggest" and "explain", and what to do if you have to "analyse" or "define". By looking through past papers, you and they should see the items that appear frequently.

For instance, on nearly every paper there is likely to be a question on the equation for photosynthesis or the anaerobic and aerobic phases of respiration, so have these on permanent display in the teaching room and recite them at every relevant opportunity. Above all, look carefully at the questions, such as the examples shown below from foundation tier, 2002, and OCR double science, higher tier, June 2003.

2002 Question 5(a) (i)

This word equation shows part of the process which produced the alcohol in the beer. Finish this equation. Write the missing words in the gaps.

Choose your words from this list:

Carbon dioxide


Lactic acid




...... - .....+ ethanol

(alcohol) + energy

2003 Question 6 (c)

Finish the balanced symbol equation for photosynthesis.

......... + 6CO2 - 6O2+ ...........

Make certain students know they have to look out for these words: symbol or word, and whatever they do, persuade them not to mix the two in an answer.

This draws attention to the importance of really reading the question carefully. Look at this one, from OCR double science, 2004:

2004 Question 7(b)

He (Sachs) cut a disc from a destarched leaf.

He dried this first disc and then accurately measured its mass.

The bean plant was allowed to photosynthesise in light.

After two hours he cut another disc from the leaf.

This was dried and its mass measured.

The results are: Mass of first disc in grams = 0.95 Mass of second disc in grams = 0.97 Work out the increase in mass in the disc per hour.

You must show how you worked out your answer.

Here the examiner has emphasised the time of two hours, but if the students miss this key fact, it makes an error in the calculation more likely. By looking at the calculation, you can highlight another common problem. The request is to show working out. But students tend either to ignore this or present the calculation so badly that their thinking is hard to follow. The sum here is easy: it is a subtraction and then a division by two. Students should realise that if they are getting into a calculation that involves more than two simple stages, then they have made an error and should read the question again, looking for any numbers that may be mentioned. Also, if their answer has several decimal places, then it is likely to be wrong and they should re-read the question.

If you are doing a biology exam, having your body with you is a big advantage as you can think about the way it works as you read a question.

Questions on topics such as the limbs, the skeleton and the skin are just three examples that have this advantage.

Finally, the obvious, which needs stating: make sure all your class know which exam they are preparing for and details such as the awarding body, the tier of entry, the date when the written papers are timetabled, the venue for the exam and the proportion of marks allocated to each element.

Be there to reassure them at the start if you can and wish them luck.

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