A-level exams, so what’s different?

So we have a new chemistry A-level coming….(this will be the 3rd one labelled ‘new’ A-level on our shared drive). And of course we have already started teaching it. AS exams are looming and we know they are going to be more difficult. This makes it even more important that students engage with the chemistry first and foremost and don’t just practise the exam papers (see Tom Husband’s recent EiC blog http://www.rsc.org/blogs/eic/2016/03/past-paper-questions-assessment-secondary-education ) The exam papers are likely to look very difficult to those we have had from 2006-2016 and even from the more recent (post January exam cancellation) papers.

Here are a few ways I think they are likely to be different and more difficult, gleaned from specimen materials and teacher information meetings.

  1.  There is lots more maths and the maths is at a higher level.  

Expect more twist and turns in questions. There will definitely be more conversions of units. In the past you may have lucked out and got nearly everything in the ideal gas equation given to you in the correct units, this is unlikely to happen in the new exams. Similarly expect more ‘working backwards’ for example, a question on calculating the relative atomic mass of an element from isotopic data obtained from a mass spectrum.

Easy question – calculate the relative atomic mass, all isotopic masses and abundances given.

Harder – calculate the relative atomic mass, all isotopic masses and abundances given but perhaps in graphical form and the abundances not given in percentages.

Harder again – calculate the abundance of and isotope from the relative atomic mass of the element plus all the isotopic masses and all of the other abundances. Working backwards!

Even harder – calculate the abundances of two different isotopes when given the relative atomic mass, the mass numbers of all the isotopes present and the abundance of one (or more but usually there are 3 isotopes present in questions like this) isotope.Working backwards and algebra!

‘Amount of substance’ mole calculations will have more twists and turns in them. Masses given in tonnes or kg, use of more than one mole equation in calculation, strategy (the order you perform certain operations) will be important.

2.  More longer questions

The ‘old’ exam papers were fairly predictable. Shorter answer questions followed by longer answer questions at the end of the paper. Expect far more 6 mark questions especially those involving comparisons. So instead of asking you to explain why something has a high melting point the question could ask you to predict the order of melting points of 3 different substances and explain the order you have chosen.

3.  Multiple choice questions

These were on the last version before this so some teachers will have experience of these and thankfully we’re not going back to multiple completion questions. The important thing to remember here is that MCQs represent the lowest form of cognitive challenge so the level of conceptual demand can be significantly more than for a written question testing the same objective. Distractors (the incorrect responses) will be deliberately written to show common misconceptions and errors.

4.  Questions about practical work.

In the past these have been isolated within the ‘coursework’, ISA/EMPA/Qualitative/Quantitative/Evaluative tasks. This is no longer the case. Accurate reading of the question will be important and clear scientific language in the responses is key.  It’s unlikely that ‘human error’ is ever going to be a correct response in these questions! Combined with the increase in longer answers there is significant challenge here as students have to bring knowledge across boundaries.

My research interests lie in historic assessment at A-level and this is a challenging but also exciting time for A-level exams. In truth many of the ‘new’ aspects have existed in various forms in the 60+ years that A-levels have been around and many departments will have colleagues who have some experience with this. This first year of AS exams will be a learning curve but hopefully we’ll all feel better equipped come the end of June when they’re all over. What the results will look like is another guess though!

Can’t find an inspiring pic for this one so here is a lemur….

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