In this excerpt from the NACE Essentials guide “Realising the potential of more able learners in GCSE science”, NACE Associate Ed Walsh explores the components of a challenging GCSE science exam question – and how teachers can best help learners prepare. 

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


There is sometimes an assumption that it is the complexity of the content that is the key determinant in how challenging an exam question is; this isn’t necessarily the case. In fact, there are a variety of ways in which questions can be made more challenging, and in order to support learners with high target grades this needs to be understood.

When preparing your learners for the most challenging GCSE science exam questions, here are six aspects to consider:

1. Reduced scaffolding and multiple steps

Whereas some questions continue to be structured and are specific about what understanding or application should be demonstrated, there will be other questions where learners need to work out the sequence of stages to be undertaken. This might, for example, involve using one equation to calculate a value which is then substituted into another. As well as being able to (in some cases) recall the equations and use them, learners also need to work out the overall strategy.

Encourage learners to get into this habit by asking: “What’s a good way of approaching this question?”

2. Extended response questions

Extended responses are frequently marked using a level of response mark scheme. If there are six marks allocated, the mark scheme will commonly have three levels. If more able learners are to score five or six marks, they need to be meeting the level 3 descriptor as often as possible.

Help learners prepare by modelling extended responses and providing opportunities to practise this – considering a structure, selecting key words, using connectives and checking against the exam specifications.

3. Use of higher-order maths skills

Learners need to be able to apply maths skills in a variety of ways. This could be a multistep response in which learners, for example, plot points on a graph, sketch the (curved) line of best fit, draw the tangent and calculate its gradient. This requires both the necessary command of these skills, and the understanding of which to use.

To ensure learners have access to the necessary maths skills, develop dialogue with your maths department. Invite colleagues to jointly consider the maths skills involved in sample science questions, and how best to prepare learners for these challenges. As well as nurturing specific skills, focus on developing learners’ ability to identify effective strategies and sequencing.

4. Linking ideas from different areas

As part of the changes to GCSE science specifications, learners are expected to show they can work and think flexibly, linking ideas from different areas of the subject. Help them prepare by providing regular opportunities to practise this. Check out the specification and the guidance it gives about key ideas and linkage.

5. Applying ideas to novel contexts

Telling learners “If it’s not on the spec you don’t need to learn it” is dangerous – and untrue! Challenging them to apply their understanding to other contexts is part of the function of the exams and will continue to be so. Again, help them prepare through regular practise so they become accustomed to applying concepts to new contexts.

6. Varied 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, others less so. Familiarising learners with the full range of these terms will prepare them to answer a wider range of questions. 

For example, a trawl through a selection of stretch and challenge questions from one suite of exam papers indicated the following usage: explain (x7), suggest (x6), compare, calculate (x12), give (x6), estimate, justify (x2), describe (x5), write (x2), use (x9), work out, draw, predict, complete (x3), show (x2), state.

Note that while these numbers show the frequency of each stem in one random selection, they don’t reflect the numbers of marks associated. It is useful, however, to reflect on the extent to which these form part of the discourse in science lessons – not just featuring in practice exam questions, but in all written and oral activities.

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.
 
Date: 
Tuesday, February 5, 2019