Research corner

26th June 2015 at 01:00
Each week, we highlight education research conducted by teachers. This week, Mark McNally, a chemistry teacher at Maghull High School in Liverpool, reveals how he helped young chemists in his class to overcome their fear of six-mark questions in GCSE exams.


Every GCSE science paper has some six-mark questions. They are designed as an opportunity for students to showcase their knowledge of a particular topic in a concise and well-structured passage of writing.

In Mark McNally's class, 15 high-ability Year 10 science students (with predictions of As and A*s) were finding six-mark questions difficult, averaging a disappointing 3.4 marks when they practised them. Extra homework wasn't helping, so McNally, pictured, decided to try peer-coaching to give his struggling students an opportunity to teach others how to write the perfect six-mark question.


These questions are hard because they demand a high level of scientific and linguistic skill. McNally believed that his pupils' unsatisfying performance in six-mark questions was chiefly a result of poor literacy skills - but he also realised that attitude was a factor.

He gave pupils a questionnaire, which revealed that nearly all of them lacked confidence in answering six-mark questions. He decided to challenge them to communicate their knowledge and to develop their self-esteem.


To begin with, McNally named his 15 top Year 10 students as coaches. He then created a planning sheet that showed each student how to split six-mark questions into topics, use key words and check for accurate spelling and grammar. He gave this to the coaches to study and use as teaching material.

All GCSE courses at the school are spread across three years, from Year 9 to Year 11. As such, McNally was able to give each Year 10 coach a group of two or three middle-ability Year 9 pupils who were working on six-mark questions. After the lesson, the Year 10 students answered one of these questions as an activity in their chemistry class.

The results

The average score achieved by the Year 10 students was 4.8, representing an increase of 80 per cent.

The Year 9 pupils did not take an exam, but they reported that being taught by pupils in the year above had benefited their learning as it was a novel and exciting experience.

The impact

All of McNally's Year 10 students reported that they felt more confident about attempting six-mark questions after the coaching session.

Next year, McNally's department intends to incorporate a programme of using Year 10 and 11 students to coach younger pupils throughout the GCSE course.

In his own class, McNally hopes to use the Year 10 cohort to coach pupils in their own year group - and eventually compare them with this study.

To find out more about the project, email Mark McNally at

To share your research findings, email

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today