6 Problem Areas identified in GCSE Science papers - Examiner Report Analysis
Like many heads of science, I spent a good deal of time each September working my way through examiners’ reports to identify areas in which our students had performed well and not so well, with the aim of identifying best teaching practices and addressing those that were less successful. This year, I have pored over the AQA examiner reports to identify six of the more general trends and problem areas, ahead of the first set of reformed examinations in May/June 2018.
1. Definitions – Students do not recall these clearly enough to gain marks – this is true for students taking the Foundation Tier and Higher Tier papers alike. For example, many foundation tier students were unable to answer 7(b) on the B1 Foundation Tier paper by completing two sentences to identify photosynthesis and one of its products, and even some higher tier students confused respiration with photosynthesis; many higher tier students were unable to define the term ’recessive’ in relation to genes in question 6 on the B2 Higher Tier paper. On the C2 Foundation Tier paper, only 8% of students could correctly define a hydrocarbon.
2. How Science Works – Many students at both levels found it difficult to identify control variables and to suggest improvements to experiments. For example, only 30% correctly identified a control variable in question 4(c)(i) on the P2 Higher Tier paper and many students could not identify two control variables in an experiment on the link between pH and enzyme activity in question 3(b)(i) on the B2 Higher Tier paper.
3. Mathematical Skills – While most students could use equations to calculate answers, many were unable to carry out basic calculations from scratch. For example, many foundation tier students were unable to recognise that they simply had to multiply two numbers together to calculate a mean yield in question 4(c)(ii) on the B1 Foundation Tier paper, and about two-thirds of higher tier students were unable to calculate a percentage increase in question 4(b((ii) on the B2 Higher Tier paper. Converting between mW and W caused problems for higher tier students in question 5(a)(ii) on the P2 Higher Tier paper and others struggled with standard form in question 6(c)(i) on the same paper.
4. Processes and Experiments – Standard processes and experiments laid out in the specification caused problems for many students. For example, the action of a reflex arc was described poorly on the whole by foundation tier students and although those descriptions given by higher tier students were better, many misconceptions were still evident. On the C1 Foundation Tier paper in question 3b, only 7% of students could explain that the reduction of iron oxide would cause a drop in mass.
5. Interpreting Diagrams – This has affected Higher Tier students more than those taking the Foundation Tier papers. Students often seem to impose their recalled knowledge on what is shown in a diagram rather than engage with the diagram itself. In a question about dealing with mitochondrial disease, many higher tier students seemed not to look at the diagram they were given to describe the process.
6. Applying Core Knowledge to Unfamiliar Situations - This affected higher tier students more than those taking the Foundation Tier papers. As might be expected, performances in individual questions fell overall as student approached the ends of the papers. However, many students appear not to have grasped what was being asked of them in some of these later questions and so missed what should have been relatively easy marks. In these situations, students often give clear accounts of particular processes without applying them to the situation given in the question. On the C3 Higher Tier paper, fewer than 20% of students were able to explain fully why ethanoic acid has a higher pH value than hydrochloric acid in question 3(c)(ii), and in question 6(b)(ii) on the same paper very few students could explain why a particular reaction is exothermic, given data on bond energies.
So, what do we do about all of this? Do science teachers really have time to ensure that all basic definitions are learned thoroughly and accurately and give students opportunities to stretch themselves and get better at the higher-level skills? One possible approach would be to make the learning of basic core content more systematic and free up time for more challenging work that reinforces basic knowledge and improves higher level skills at the same time. In order to do this, we need to have a plentiful supply of appropriate assessment materials and the opportunities to use them.