In this excerpt from the NACE Essentials guide “Realising the potential of more able learners in GCSE science”, NACE Associate Ed Walsh outlines six key steps to improve provision and outcomes for those capable of attaining the highest grades in this subject.

To explore this topic in depth, join one of Ed’s upcoming workshops in Cardiff or London.

1. Make effective use of assessment data

While many schools devote a significant amount of time to assembling, applying, marking and grading periodic tests, there’s often scope for these to be used more effectively to diagnose areas for improvement. Question-level analysis can help both teachers and learners identify areas of low subject knowledge and skills gaps (tagged against GCSE assessment objectives) – informing feedback, self-assessment and goal-setting, interventions, evaluation of teaching styles and planning for future lessons.

Similarly, analysis can indicate how learners perform in multiple choice questions, shorter written responses and longer responses. Be prepared: if aspirational students are looking to develop in one of these areas, they’ll expect guidance as to how to do so. Woe betide the teacher who can’t provide a learner chasing a good grade either with more examples or effective strategies in areas identified as weaknesses!

2. Challenge learners to use a range of command words

Each awarding organisation uses a particular set of command words in GCSE science exams. Some of these will already be in common parlance in your science lessons, while others may not be used as often. Familiarising learners with the full range of these terms will prepare them to answer a wider range of questions. 

When revising a topic, prompt learners to suggest the type of questions examiners might ask; this will help them revise more effectively. Elicit the nature of each question, encouraging learners to consider the influence of assessment objectives (AOs) and to use a full range of command words.

3. Develop dialogue with the maths department

The quality of dialogue with colleagues in maths and the development of a whole-school numeracy policy has never been so important. (It may also never have been so tricky, bearing in mind the pressure that both maths and science teams can be under.) It can be tempting for a hard-pressed science department to want the maths team to fit in with their running order of topics. The maths curriculum is also driven by a sense of progression, but not necessarily the same one. Skills demanded in KS3 science may in some cases not be taught in maths until KS4.

Rather than reach an impasse, focus on exploring common ground. Set up a joint meeting and look at maths skills involved in sample science questions. Invite colleagues to explore potential strategies, terminology, likely challenges for learners and how they would deal with these. As well as nurturing specific skills, focus on developing learners’ ability to identify effective strategies and sequencing. More able learners aiming for high grades need to develop problem-solving skills as well as a mastery of individual skills.

4. Review the role of practical work and skills

When carrying out required practicals, ensure learners have access to a range of question types, including questions based on AO2 (application of knowledge and understanding) and AO3 (interpretation and evaluation). It is also important to look at the lists of apparatus and techniques skills in the GCSE specification. Questions relating to practical work are often based on these, even if the context isn’t one learners have met in the required practicals. Assess how good learners are at these skills and whether you can give them more opportunities to develop these. These have a strong relationship with skills used at A-level, meaning those progressing to further study will also benefit.

5. Develop the role of extended writing

Candidates will be expected to develop extended responses, especially on higher tier papers. Look at learners’ performance on such questions to see how it compares with other items. It may be useful to encourage learners to consider what structure to use before commencing writing. Model the drafting of an extended response, demonstrating how you select key words, use connectives, structure a response and check against the answer. AQA, for example, is moving towards the use of generic descriptors for types of extended responses.

6. Link ideas from different parts of the specification

As part of the changes to GCSE science specifications, learners are expected to show that they can work and think flexibly, linking ideas from different areas. Use questions that require this, identifying good examples to use in advance. One of the sample questions uses the context of a current balance, including ideas about magnetic fields and levers. Check out the specification and the guidance it gives about key ideas and linkage. As well as scrutinising the detailed content, look at the preamble and follow-up.

Book now!

Join Ed Walsh in Cardiff on 7 March or London on 21 March for the one-day workshop Challenging more able learners in science – an opportunity to explore recent changes to GCSE science specifications, implications for teaching and learning, required skills and strategies to attain the highest grades, and practical approaches to help your more able learners prepare for the upcoming exams.

With experience as a secondary head of science, county science adviser and a regional and senior adviser for the Secondary National Strategy, Ed Walsh is an independent consultant in science education. With a proven track record in helping schools improve their science provision, he has published widely in the field, and developed and delivered training for teachers and heads of science, including on behalf of organisations such as ASE and AQA. As a NACE associate, Ed designs and delivers training and resources to support effective teaching and learning for the more able in science.
Tuesday, January 22, 2019