Science - A leap of faith

24th February 2012 at 00:00
Students need techniques as well as facts to pass exams

A-level chemistry is hard - a fact generally acknowledged by universities, employers and students. David Willetts, minister of state for universities and science, even suggested that "tough A levels should carry more points".

But why do students find A-level chemistry so difficult? I do not think there is one answer, more a number of contributory factors. Students have had 10 weeks or more between taking their last GCSE and returning to school for sixth form. Have they forgotten how to work? Did they ever really know how to?

Of the students I have spoken to, all agree that it is different. Certainly, it is no longer sufficient to learn only the content to access higher grades. For AS chemistry, you have to apply that knowledge: a key part of this is interpreting the question to decide what the examiner wants.

So we need to teach techniques as well as content and add to the mix the increase in chemical terminology. Students who have completed double-award science may have learned about "amount of substance" rather than mole and some find the language daunting. They may not have done much practical work and now find they have to develop skills for coursework assessment.

Including a variety of activities can help students to identify how they learn best. Mini whiteboards allow quick assessment of whether everyone has understood a concept; sorting flash cards shows them how they can learn key definitions; turning text into tables, posters or PowerPoints demonstrates the link between processing and retaining information. Peer assessment also helps students to understand grading criteria.

I also believe that the step from GCSE to AS is greater than that from AS to A2, yet if I tell my students, will I worry them unduly? Sometimes honesty is more likely to put students off rather than reassure them. I tell A-level students that they will have their eureka moment when it all makes sense. Sadly, not all stay the course to experience the joy when this happens.

Sarah Longshaw is head of chemistry at Eaton Bank School, Congleton, Cheshire

What else?

Ease the transition from GCSE to AS level with some fun chemistry activities, such as LyndaDunlop's biochemistry taboo cards or sjc22's "Oxidation Number Bingo".

Alternatively, aglaze shares a number of crosswords for post-16 chemistry terminology.

In the forums

In the TES science forum teachers are looking for inspiring quotes about science. Our favourite so far: "If it squirms, it's biology; if it stinks, it's chemistry; if it doesn't work, it's physics."

Another thread discusses fictional books used to promote an interest in science. Can you suggest any?

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